On November 19th, 2020, in ‘Pathway to extinction’: Australian Centre for Photography closes doors Linda Morris of The Sydney Morning Herald reported that:
“The Australian Centre for Photography, critical in launching the careers of Bill Henson and Tracey Moffatt, will close its doors due to a cash crunch brought on by COVID-19 lockdown, the shift to smartphone photography and funding cuts.
The ACP board announced Thursday it had made the “painful decision” to cease its programs at its Darlinghurst gallery and “hibernate” while it restructures the organisation to protect it from “ongoing financial losses”.
Lisa Moore, daughter of photographer David Moore, who conceived the idea of a non-profit cultural centre to advance the medium in Australia in 1970, described it as a sad day for photography….
December 16 will be the last day for the ACP’s four full-time, two part-time staff and 15 casual tutors in what its director and chief executive Pierre Arpin describes as the latest in a series of hard knocks for the arts sector….”
The Australian Centre for Photography later confirmed that report with its news item, Announcement: ACP Hibernation.
The imminent ending of the Australian Centre for Photography in its present form or, possibly, forever, is a major blow for Australian photography and photographers both continuing to suffer from the effects of the mobile phone camera revolution, the reduction in local print magazine production, the loss of professional camera stores and their micro-communities, and the end of the golden era of top-quality newspaper photojournalism in this country in which I was lucky enough to take part.
Who buys and where?
The ACP’s “hibernation” is the second blow to independent photography in Australia in this decade.
Stills Gallery, a specialist photo gallery located in a far-flung part of Paddington, closed up shop in 2017, twenty-seven years after opening in 1991 at the same time I was working on the first few issues of ‘not only Black+White’ magazine with the aim of helping to radically advance the understanding and role of photography as a creative medium in Australia.
I have never sold any of my documentary photographs at gallery shows, hardly surprising given as the biggest collector of Australian photography does not live here.
Besides Elton John who purchased from Stills each time he visited this country, I am not aware of any other consistent and dedicated collector of photographs made by Australians, and certainly not of documentary photographs, and I wonder what the future holds for independent photographers with these two galleries gone.
Some commercial art galleries in Sydney show certain photographic genres so long as they conform to the tropes of contemporary art practice but there is no longer a place one can drop into with the assurance that one will always see well-curated photography shows there.
When I first came to Sydney I had hoped that the ACP might have taken on some of the functions and status of, say, The Photographer’s Gallery in London, as a national centre for photography and related media but such hopes depend on adequate private and public support and without annual funding from a national arts organization such as the Arts Council in England, with its National Lottery grants, such ambitions were doomed never to materialize.
As noted in the captions to my images of the ACP below, the premises occupied by the organization in Oxford Street, Paddington, for forty years limited the size and nature of all that the ACP could do and my irregular long treks there were rarely rewarded with enough to see or do each time.
I never felt welcome much less at home at the ACP despite once being asked to show some urban documentary photographs there while living interstate at the time, and my later experience in 2010 when invited by a famous German fashion photographer friend to attend the opening of a group show curated by the great F. C. Gundlach caused me to feel even less welcome there.
My friend tried to remind the ACP’s organizers of the role I had played in helping advance Australian photography around the world with ‘not only Black+White’ magazine, expecting for me the same kind of respect we had both experienced in the UK and later at photokina where he introduced me to F. C. Gundlach and we attended a Stern magazine reception, but his pleas were ignored.
My friend looked shocked at how I was treated, and then he was shuffled off by his hosts while I stood there shamefaced, then I left the building for the long walk down Oxford Street to Town Hall Station.
I had been hoping to spend some quality time with my friend after not seeing him for over a decade, but I never saw nor heard from him again and I still don’t know why.
I didn’t return to the ACP for quite some time, until a Reportage Festival event where I briefly felt amongst peers once more.
A difficult location
Paddington may have been an enclave of ethnic and working class culture for decades before I first came to Sydney but by then it had become gentrified by and for the upper middle class with pricey boutiques and exorbitant rents, restaurants where lunch cost more than just a pretty penny and too few other reasons to go there.
Given all that I could understand why the ACP’s leadership might consider selling its biggest financial asset to bet the shop on finding better quarters closer to where the real action was, in the city itself or at least in the more inner city locations rather than Paddington close by to Centennial Park.
In reality, though, they missed the boat by a couple of decades.
The better time to up sticks and move was in the early 1990s before Surry Hills, Darlinghurst and Redfern began their own gentrification process, when artists and photographers lived and worked in multi-storey renovation-ripe buildings like Silknit House, now Teachers Federation House in Mary Street, Surry Hills.
I narrowly missed the opportunity to move into a residential share studio in Silknit House but competition for places was stiff, the waiting list was ever-growing and I had only recently moved to Sydney so was something of an unknown quantity.
Surry Hills was described as “the city’s backyard” by author Christopher Keating in his book of that name ‘Surry Hills: The City’s Backyard‘ and the suburb hosted other so-called artists’ colony buildings such as a narrow multi-storey building of photographers’ studios in Foster Street, a backstreet colour photo lab and rental studio beloved of fashion photographers and another rental studio offering monochrome hand processing and printing in Elizabeth Street near Opera Australia.
Sun Studios in Alexandria, now owned by Canon Australia, apparently began life as a rental studio in Sydney’s Liverpool Street with more such studios and artists’ colony buildings in nearby East Sydney.
For a time I rented a couple of rooms in a little complex in Sophia Street in Surry Hills which connected to an advertising photographer’s offices fronting onto Foveaux Street when I freelanced for a number of nearby magazine and newspaper publishers including News Corp Australia in Kippax Street, Australian Consolidated Press in Park Street and Fairfax Media west of the Sydney Central Business District.
Developers’ mania for demolishing heritage buildings, turning others into apartment and office blocks and erasing the lesson-imparting past has made these historic Sydney locations unattainable for the creative classes who have been scattered to far-flung suburbs, or have moved interstate or overseas.
The end of inner city creative colonies and studios?
I had experienced similar artists’ colonies and inner-city studios in Perth, Western Australia before moving east and the story was the same there but in miniature, with landlords promising renters hand on heart to never abandon them by selling up but who then succumb to bags of cash brandished by developers lusting to turn the city and its inner city suburbs into soulless money machines.
Sydney deserves better than that.
Australia deserves better than that.
Photography in Australia deserves better than that.
We need an inner city complex for photography and the other digital and screen media, and if that means taking a leaf out of the Soho House organization’s book, with its accommodation, restaurants, event spaces, studio spaces, cinemas, locations, workspaces and projects, then so be it so long as it is recognized that Australian creatives remain amongst some of the most poorly paid on the planet.
I would love to be able to spend time in such a place with other Sydney-based creatives and especially photographers and filmmakers, but frankly I just don’t know where they all are now.
I need to “connect, grow, have fun, and make an impact” once again, just as I did when I conceived and co-founded ‘not only Black+White’ magazine then moved to London as its European Contributing Editor.
This pandemic isn’t going to last forever and we need something to look forward to when it has run its course.
We need to look forward to being with others with whom we share common interests to cheer reach other on, generate new projects and initiate change for the better and that cannot come too soon.
We need to pursue real diversity and inclusion, going above and beyond the tokenism that still leaves too many of us out in the cold, alone and unwelcome unless we conform and play down the differences that could enrich this nation’s creativity if they were truly respected and permitted to flourish.
Above all, we need to actively embrace those who are different, born different, from different backgrounds, give respect where it is due and make all welcome in a home away from home.
Australian Centre for Photography, Darlinghurst, Sydney on February 25th, 2020 and ACP Workshop at Ted’s World of Imaging, Sydney in October 2018
- Andrew Bassett Fine Framing – Blackwattle History – “Other artists colonies lost in recent years include the Silknit House in Surry Hills, Sylvester Studios in Redfern and Shepherd & Newman in East Sydney. Communities like the Blackwattle studios have been described as important breeding grounds for creative talent and incubators for small business, and in an enlightened city would be considered community assets.”
- Arts Council, England – Arts Council National Lottery Project Grants
- Australian Centre for Photography – Announcement: ACP Hibernation
- Australian Centre for Photography – Facebook
- Australian Centre for Photography – Instagram
- Australian Centre for Photography – Twitter
- Australian Centre for Photography – website
- Australian Traveller – The Greats of German fashion photography in Australia – Published 03 May 2010 – “On display there will be 188 photographs, selected by curator F C Gundlach from across 39 photographers. The artists range from Helmut Newton, who was one of the most sought-after fashion and advertising photographers of his day, to Regi Relang, Rico Puhlmann, Wolfgang Tillmans and Olaf Martens.”
- Concrete Playground. – Australian Centre for Photography to Leave Paddington – “Sydney’s once vibrant Oxford Street is set to face yet another loss: The Australian Centre for Photography, a cornerstone of Paddington’s creative history for the past 40 years and one of the longest running contemporary art spaces in Australia, is selling up. For ACP, the lack of accessibility along Oxford Street has been the major drawback. Director Suzanne Buljan sees the decision to move the home of Australia’s photo-media community to a more central location as an opportunity to “adapt with our ever changing medium and produce innovative shows that overcome both building and transport barriers for audiences.””
- John McDonald – Farewell Stills – “Published in The Good Weekend, 24 June 2017” – “There’s no doubt who has been Stills’ number one private collector: “Elton John,” says Freedman. “He’s incredible.” On every trip to Australia, the singer, who is also one of the world’s leading collectors of photography, has gone on a shopping binge at the gallery.”
- Reportage Festival – website – “Born in a Bondi living room in 1999 when a group of friends took turns showing their latest work, Reportage has grown to become Australia’s leading showcase of international documentary photography…. Since 2014 the Festival has been in hiatus with programs planned for the future.”
- Soho House – “A members’ club founded in 1995. A home for creative people to come together. Soho House is a place for our diverse membership to connect, grow, have fun, and make an impact.”
- Stills Gallery – website – “Stills Gallery ran from 1991 to 2017. It was one of Australia’s longest running and pre–eminent commercial galleries and one of the few specialising in contemporary photography. Stills opened at 16 Elizabeth St Paddington in Sydney in May 1991. In November 1997 the gallery relocated to 36 Gosbell St Paddington, finally closing its doors in July 2017. Stills supported both emerging and established artists working across the spectrum of photomedia and had a long history of fostering artists throughout their careers.”
- The Photographers’ Gallery, London – “The Photographers’ Gallery (TPG) was founded in London’s Covent Garden in 1971 as the first public gallery in the UK dedicated to the photographic medium. From the outset it has been instrumental in promoting photography’s value to the wider world and ensuring its position as one of our most significant artforms.”
- The Sydney Morning Herald – ‘Pathway to extinction’: Australian Centre for Photography closes doors
- The Sydney Morning Herald – Reportage uncensored – “These are the images you won’t see at Reportage Photo Festival’s projections during Vivid. Pictures from at least 18 of the 35 photographers selected for the event have been pulled, including those from international guests from prestigious photojournalism agencies Magnum, Noor and Contact. The photos have been deemed unsuitable for a public audience during Vivid Sydney.”
- The Sydney Morning Herald – Why the legacy of Sydney’s Stills gallery will live on after its closure
- Unititled.Net – How I Came Out of the Western Desert and Helped Kill Off the Cultural Cringe – PDF
- Wikipedia – F. C. Gundlach