In this week’s column, Dr Nick Gordon looks at photographic art, in era where we are bombarded day and night with images. He focuses a lens on the Head On Photo Festival – running this year as a digital festival called Head On(line) – as well as the Ballarat International Foto Biennale, and the photographic exhibitions on Peter Fetterman Gallery’s website, including Ansel Adams: Beauty & Truth.

Head On(line) Photo Festival
Whimsical Warrior by Marcia Macmillan

“Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.”

Paul Valéry, The Conquest of Ubiquity, 1928.

Unwittingly or presciently, Valéry speaks to the age we live in, the unprecedented number of images we create and consume each day. Photographers often need support to be seen in this sea of screens. The annual Head On Festival, founded to address this problem in 2008, recognises photographic artists at all stages of their careers. Running this year as a digital festival until May 17, there are 110 exhibitions to view online, which can be found in the first 10 pages of the Foundation’s website navigation bar – there are another 126 pages of exhibitions from 2009–19 – as well as live lectures and interviews.

One of the strengths of the festival is that it avoids rigid, and partially false, distinctions between artistic and documentary photography. This aversion is apparent immediately in the amount of photojournalism on display, a reminder that the people who add to our newsfeeds are often engaged in an aesthetically serious and socially significant enterprise. David Collins’s series on Manus Island during the last weeks of Behrouz Boochani’s captivity, for example, is excellent in this respect. His choice of black and white augments the sense of timelessness and placelessness that he captures, and his composition and choice of subject matter are subtle. Rather than screaming a message at us, he allows us to enter the scenes so quietly that only our knowledge of their context gives them a fixed time and place. In this way, we become complicit in each photo’s capacity to bear meaning.

Chief among the exhibitions is the portrait prize, whose winners have been announced and which Limelight has covered. Taking time to look at each of the 40 shortlisted portraits closely is rewarding for the range of human experience and photographic methods they showcase. Craig Tuffin, for example, continues his work with Indigenous Australians using the 19th-century collodion process. The results are beautiful but also subversive: the technology that was often used to capture Indigenous subjects for a foreign audience is used to give a voice to the variety of Indigenous experience in contemporary Australia. The complexity of this process is quite a contrast to Giuseppe Cardoni’s Self Portrait, a casually offhand-looking collage of official mugshots and bits of old passports, which juxtapose the passing of time on a person’s face with the constancy of their legal existence. There is a fair dose of chiaroscuro in the portrait prize too, such as Denise Martin’s Dante, first light, Milan, 2019, which is uncannily reminiscent of Caravaggio’s teenage St John the Baptist.

The power of photography, however, is predicated on our acceptance of its authenticity rather than its artfulness – a suspension of disbelief that the photographer engineers. In this regard, Sarah Ducker and Paul Harman’s landscape photography is exceptional. Ducker’s photographs of burned-out landscapes are beautiful, and demonstrate a degree of subtle abstraction that few photographers achieve. Burnt eucalypt trunks provide a rhythm of black bands across the horizontal axis of her photos, but they are placed in such a way that amplifies the textures of the scorched leaves behind them – the textures of tapestries, coppery taffeta and brocade. We see something beautiful in the aftermath of the terrifying power of fire, and are not given the platitude of green shoots to connote a return to normality.

Similarly, Harman’s aerial photographs of western NSW remind us of the beauty of the wide brown land and are visually similar to Olsen’s or Williams’s landscapes. But this is the Murray Darling basin, beautiful from the air until we remember what that desolation means – and the problems that have slipped off the nightly news during the great C-word, which will return to our televisions when it passes. Beauty, here as in so many other forms of art, calls us closer in to witness a tragedy.

Ballarat International Foto Biennale
Image by @Kozka posted on Instagram for @massisolationaus

Some of what you see in Head On will no doubt play a role in shaping Australian cultural memory. Another of Australia’s leading photographic institutions, the Ballarat International Foto Biennale, has been doing this more directly. This year they’ve partnered with FORMAT International Photography Festival and Gallery of Photography Ireland to curate #massisolationaus, a public art project encouraging ordinary people to self-document their experience of self-isolation during the COVID-19 crisis with their mobile phones. It’s a deliberately egalitarian project, but it helps translate individual experience of a world event into documentable national memory. The project, still in its infancy, has good credentials – it is inspired by Mass Observation, an out-of-Cambridge research group that created an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ in 1930s Britain, which continues to be used by social historians.

The results are updated regularly on Instagram and bear witness to a range of experiences, from what we consider abnormal about our situation (such as the Jeffrey Smart-esque scenes of near-empty streetscapes), to images of our behaviour (such as the casual larrikinism produced by boredom and a bit of ingenuity). While not as serious in terms of aesthetics, it highlights the spontaneity with which a camera can be wielded and reminds us that the exoticism in photographs of far-away peoples and places can also be found in our own backyard.

But the curated selection also shows us what ordinary people have learned by trawling the sea of images: compositional techniques, lighting effects, depth of field, the appearance of naturalness – even if not perfectly executed. Each of these elements of photography has a long pedigree, and looking at the artists who developed and popularised these techniques is often a joy.

Peter Fetterman Gallery
Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, Ca 1944 (printed 1970) @Ansel Adams. Courtesy of the Ansel Adams Publicity Trust

To take a closer look at some of these past and present masters, Peter Fetterman Gallery has opened up its current and recent exhibitions for view online. Its current exhibition of 40 silver gelatin Ansel Adams’ photographs – Ansel Adams: Beauty & Truth, running until August 21 – is excellent, and it is easy to see his influence over generations of photographers seeking to capture the sublime grandeur of nature. This exhibition is balanced by a journey into the gallery’s back catalogue, which includes Judy Glickmann Lauder’s recent photo-essay on the Holocaust; an exhibition of iconic Audrey Hepburn portraits; and a large but accessible exhibition from the French humanist school of photography, with many instantly recognisable works by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sabine Weiss and Willy Ronis. Much of what is available to view online here has already become ingrained in our cultural imagination: the very best and worst of the world we live in, and our history shaped through a lens.

This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.