THE FEM­I­NIST’S EYE

A ground­break­ing ca­reer is be­ing cel­e­brated for the first time, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FEATURE -

IN 1962, Sue Ford was one of only two women en­rolled in the pho­tog­ra­phy course at Mel­bourne’s RMIT. It was there the 19year-old, in­tent on pur­su­ing a ca­reer in the male-dom­i­nated medium, would have her first taste of the so­cial and pro­fes­sional chal­lenges that would ul­ti­mately shape her ca­reer. Af­ter be­ing sex­u­ally ha­rassed by a male lec­turer, the promis­ing stu­dent was forced to cut short her stud­ies, quit­ting RMIT to set up a pho­to­graphic stu­dio in Mel­bourne.

“Sue was one of the first fe­male pho­tog­ra­phers to es­tab­lish her­self as an in­de­pen­dent prac­ti­tioner and from the be­gin­ning she saw her­self as a pho­to­graphic artist, not a commercial pho­tog­ra­pher,” says Mag­gie Finch, cu­ra­tor at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria. “She was quite de­fi­ant about that.”

Ford, who died in 2009, went on to be­come one of the coun­try’s best-known pho­tog­ra­phers, recog­nised for her self-por­trai­ture and her black and white work.

From next week, the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria will hold the first ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tive of Ford’s work, in an ex­hi­bi­tion span­ning her decades-long ca­reer and fea­tur­ing some 200 pho­to­graphs as well as film and video in­stal­la­tion.

“In a way I think her fem­i­nist work­ing method de­vel­oped al­most out of ne­ces­sity,” says Finch of Ford, who in 1974 was the first pho­tog­ra­pher to hold a solo ex­hi­bi­tion at the NGV. “Her early works were very col­lab­o­ra­tive. There is a real sense of ca­ma­raderie and the con­sen­sual na­ture of the im­ages. The way Sue worked cre­ated such a dif­fer­ent dy­namic to the more for­mal work of the male pho­tog­ra­phers who were of­ten work­ing with pro­fes­sional mod­els to a very par­tic­u­lar aes­thetic.”

Af­ter leav­ing RMIT, Ford opened a stu­dio in Lit­tle Collins Street with friend An­nette Stephens. The stu­dio was above a cafe whose owner, ac­cord­ing to Finch, was con­vinced it was a front for a brothel. Ford grew tired of the land­lord’s tirade each time a man walked up the stair­well and so she be­gan pho­tograph­ing her fe­male friends, be­fore de­cid­ing to turn the cam­era on her­self.

The col­lab­o­ra­tive ap­proach that evolved in the early years of her prac­tice be­came a hall­mark. As more women came on to the pho­tog­ra­phy scene Ford shared her knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ences. “Sue was in­cred­i­bly gen­er­ous and very in­clu­sive,” says close friend Bonita Ely, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of fine arts at Syd­ney’s Univer­sity of NSW.

But it was ex­per­i­men­ta­tion that re­ally de­fined Ford’s phi­los­o­phy and she em­braced new tech­nolo­gies in or­der to push cre­ative bound­aries. Her cam­era, she claimed, was an ex­ten­sion of her be­ing, al­ways within reach. An­other of Ford’s in­ner cir­cle, He­len Ennis, pro­fes­sor at Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity’s school of art, says Ford is cru­cial to the his­tory of Aus­tralian pho­tog­ra­phy.

“Sue is one of those fig­ures who re­ally be­gan to put art pho­tog­ra­phy on the map,” she says.

In the early 1970s Ford re­ceived a schol­ar­ship to study at the Vic­to­rian Col­lege of the Arts where she learned to fo­cus less on tech­nique and more on the im­age it­self. Pho­tog­ra­pher Ruth Mad­di­son says it is this shift in Ford’s work that in­flu­enced her own aes­thetic. “Her ap­proach was ‘I don’t care if the print is scratched or if there’s dust on it, it is all about the im­age’. She was val­i­dat­ing the fact that some­times you love the im­age, but the print might not be fab ... that al­lowed me to re­lax”.

Ford was one of the ear­li­est pho­tog­ra­phers to em­brace multimedia, us­ing dark­room tech­niques to cre­ate films such as 1972 short Woman in a House, which fea­tures mul­ti­ple neg­a­tives, mul­ti­ple ex­po­sures and mir­ror­ing to tell the story of a young mar­ried woman who is des­per­ately try­ing to es­cape her sit­u­a­tion. It was an­other ex­am­ple of self-re­flec­tion. At the time Ford was re­cently sep­a­rated.

Po­lit­i­cal and en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues also in­flu­enced her choices through works such as 1969’s Bush Per­for­mance Mon­tage, fea­tur­ing a male friend wear­ing a gas mask, and anti-war piece Viet­nam the Six O’Clock News.

But it is Ford’s 1974 Time Se­ries — a work fea­tur­ing two black and white por­traits of the An­nette,

Time Se­ries;

Lyn and Carol, same per­son taken 10 years apart, hung side by side — that is con­sid­ered one of the ground­break­ing mo­ments in Aus­tralian pho­tog­ra­phy.

In her artist’s state­ment for the Time Se­ries Ford said, “In Time Se­ries I tried to use the cam­era as ob­jec­tively as pos­si­ble … the cam­era showed me with ab­so­lute clar­ity, some­thing I could only just per­ceive with my naked eye.”

Mel­bourne pho­tog­ra­pher Ponch Hawkes, among oth­ers, cites it as a source of in­spi­ra­tion.

“I think Sue in­tro­duced the no­tion of ‘the se­ries’ in Aus­tralia. You can see it in Amer­i­can pho­tog­ra­phy, but no one was do­ing that here … that re­ally changed things. Sud­denly the sub­ject mat­ter of our own lives was ap­pro­pri­ate for pho­tog­ra­phy.” Ford worked un­til her death, aged 66. “She never stopped think­ing about her prac­tice,” says Ennis. “She was a cre­ative, open and in­spir­ing per­son. I feel very lucky to have known her.”

Clock­wise, from top left,

1962 and 1974 from the Sue Ford’s self-por­trait, 1974; pho­togram

of two hands and gar­den path, 1970; self-por­trait, 1961;

1961

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