Photokina is a time to immerse yourself in all things photographic. Beyond the exhibition halls of the Köln Messe complex there’s an extensive program of exhibitions and seminars staged around Cologne which, every other September, becomes photography central. However, all across Europe – and pretty well all of the time in any given year – photography is a key element of most cultural or art programs. So, for example, you really can’t move in Paris without encountering an exhibition of photography and every bookshop, even the tiny ones, have a decent selection of photography books. It’s the same in Berlin, Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Even the Italians – who can be forgiven for an interest in more ancient art – appear to be reasonably well educated about photography.
On the very day I arrived back in Australia from Photokina I noticed a little piece in The Sydney Morning Herald’s PS section headed ‘Cazneaux Who?’ The story was that the house – in the suburb of Roseville – where Harold Cazneaux had lived for much of his life and where he had raised his family of six children, is up for sale. There apparently won’t be much change from a cool two million, but it’s not the link with one of Australia’s more important photographers that’s contributed to the property’s value. In fact, wrote SMH journalist Damien Murphy, “The agents, Chadwick Real Estate, are not bothering to tell potential buyers of its significance”. What? Is that because nobody would know who Harold Cazneaux was or, even if they did, they couldn’t give a monkey’s that this was his home all the time he was creating some of his best-known photographs? The answers are probably ‘yes’ and ‘yes’. If this was the UK, there would at least be one of those distinctive round blue plaques on the wall that explained who Cazneaux was and how long he’d lived in the building.
Don’t worry, we don’t just single out photographers for this dismissive treatment. When I was researching Percy Grainger – Australia’s best claim to fame in classical music – for a TV program, there were virtually no acknowledgements of any of the houses he lived in while growing up in Melbourne. Even the famous Esplanade Hotel at St Kilda – where he stayed with his mother for a while – is more obsessed with being the venue for the SBS show Rockwiz. But, that said, there is a fine museum at the University of Melbourne devoted to Grainger… even if he did establish much of it himself in the years before his death in 1961.
Where is Australia’s equally important history in photography celebrated? There are certainly no museums or dedicated centres and, as just illustrated, obviously no indications of birthplaces, homes or other significant sites. Where can you learn about the history of photography in Australia and who were the important pioneers over the last century and a half? Where are the archives where, if students were interested, they could go to conduct research? There’s been a handful of books over the decades, but most, if not all, are now long out of print and consequently hard to find. Beyond this, it’s all basically down to what individuals have determined might be worth keeping… exhibition catalogues, magazines, the minutes of meetings and the like.
More disturbingly, if we’ve badly neglected the preservation of Australia’s photographic history in the past, even less is being done now that we’ve entered the unemotional era of digital imaging with its obsession on a short-lived present. We even seem hell-bent on killing off the word “photography” itself. And while there are reasonably representative collections of photographic prints in both private and public hands, we may not even have these in the future if everybody continues to put blind faith in the longevity of digital image files.
I’m continually amazed at the cavalier fashion with which the 150-odd years of film photography is often dismissed yet I’m more frequently seeing wheels being continually re-invented because nobody has a recollection of even 15 years ago. Digital imaging may have been a seismic technological change, but beyond the hardware, much remains the same which is why an appreciation of history serves as a useful compass for navigating the future.
It’s probably too much – and too late – to ask for a dedicated centre (how often have we had that debate?), but there’s still time to dedicate real resources to compiling archives, creating educational materials, identifying significant sites and ensuring the preservation of important items so that, when somebody does ask “Cazneaux Who?”, there’s somewhere to go to find the answer.