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Introduction

Including works by 16 Australian photographers, this exhibition focuses on how the camera has been used to document and comment on this country and culture.

Australian vernacular photography traces developments in photographic practice from the postwar period through to the present day, with images ranging from documentary or ‘straight’ photography (where the subjects are usually unaware of the camera), through to those that look self-reflexively at the constructed nature of the medium.

By the 1960s Australian photographers were comparing their work with international peers, thanks to photographic publications and the watershed 1959 tour of The family of man exhibition organised by the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Institutional support for photography didn’t come until the 1970s; however those committed to the medium forged on, intent on capturing their visions of Australia photographically.

The increasing role of photography in the latter part of the 20th century attests to the rising need Australians felt to apprehend the nation, personal identity and society through images. Many of these photographs offer frank perspectives on Australian culture without the romanticising tendencies of earlier photographers. Photographing the everyday became a way of understanding how Australia saw (and sees) itself, with recurrent themes such as beach culture, suburbia, race relations, protest and the role of women among the central concerns of image-makers then and now.

Issues for consideration

  • The family of man exhibition tour in 1959 is often identified as a critical source of inspiration for the prolonged interest in scenes of daily life among Australian photographers. With this in mind, suggest how Australian photographers in the 1960s and 70s responded to the world around them. How is daily life portrayed in the photographs in Australian vernacular photography? Do you think this representation is accurate?
  • In the 1970s, photography-specific galleries like Sydney’s Australian Centre for Photography were established, the first state curatorial department for photography was founded at the National Gallery of Victoria, and full-time tertiary-level photography courses were introduced. What impact do you think this had on photographers and photography? How has the role of photography changed from its scientific beginnings in the mid 19th century to today?
  • Choose an image in this exhibition to research. In particular, consider its subject matter and composition. What contribution does the focal point and background make to your reading of the photograph? Reflect on the importance of what is included in the image and what is eliminated. Is what is not there as powerful as what is? Discuss.
  • Observe your local environment. Describe its features eg urban, rural, coastal, bushland, dry, lush. List the colours, forms and objects you see. Create a visual diary of observations. Include photographic evidence as well as a collection of objects and sketches. Present your diary to the class in an imaginative and creative way.
  • Create a photographic body of work that represents one aspect of Australian visual culture. Find influence from an artist or artists in this exhibition. How does your body of work represent this influence as well as your unique style?
  • Consider the title of this exhibition. What does it mean? How do the works reflect a certain visual 'language’ or 'dialect’? Research the Gallery’s collection and select six works that reflect your own understanding of this topic. Write a 50-word introduction discussing your choices and their connection with an Australian vernacular.