Ian North on Canberra

Review: Photography
Ian North’s Canberra Suite Series 1981,
Canberra Museum and Gallery 2014
On exhibition: # 6, 11, 12 17, 20,24

It was while visiting the Canberra Gallery for another exhibition that we spotted these six works by the artist/photographer Ian North. On exhibition were colour photographs from Ian’s suite of 24 images, the Canberra Suite Series (1981).

1-P1050619These images were taken of Canberra suburbs and feature infrastructure, roads, the streets, the houses, their gardens, the fences,  and other typical views of the time.

All the photographs are linked together in this suite through the absence of people and the ever-present rich blue skies. Those Canberra intense blue skies are famous, especially in winter (right now).

2-P1050618Canberra is located inland which is unusual for a major Australian city.  At the time these images were a portrayal of the artist’s reaction to the urban fabric that was coming of age in as the nation’s capital and home for Canberrans. People had been moving to Canberra in large numbers in the 1970s and 1980s and so the many of the new residents were experiencing an urban environment that was not familiar.

3-P1050616Many people coming to Canberra were taken aback by the abundance of trees and shrubs, the very orderly suburbs and the eerily absence of people from the streets. People did not walk or spend time outside instead they drove everywhere and then disappeared.

This unfamiliarity was often the subject of scorn by people coming to Canberra from places with a different urban character.

The nature of the city is that it is based within a regional and rural area. The city was and continues to be developed as a garden city, even though the surrounding climate is alien to there being such well manicured and abundant gardens and lawns.

4-P1050615Ian North’s suite of photographs captured the open air character of the city and its suburbs being the places where its residents lived, worked and traveled.

In all these images the people are absent. This feeling that the people did not occupy the open spaces and were in hiding more often than not was very much the conclusion that people had of the place in the seventies and eighties.

5-P1050614The question is that as the urban areas have expanded and the inner suburbs have been infilled, how much has the atmospherics of the national capital changed? In comparison to other major inner areas, the main suburban areas of Canberra are still quiet. This of course is the aura that many residents see as the bonus of living here in comparison to the ever increasing crowded and noisy areas of other Australian cities.

The open and quiet atmospheres captured by Ian North from these previous decades are the things that many residents now wish to hang onto and enhance rather than see them be redeveloped into something that is the just the same as other cities.

The formalism and beautiful use of colour in Ian North’s images is still as engaging today as it was when they were first exhibited.  The artist has expertly captured that Canberra light. These photographs are very much first about light and then the nature of the urban subjects. The ambience Ian North created back then is still working today in 2014 as I noticed that visitors who walked past them, stopped, and then took a few moments to experience the each artwork.

Here are some descriptive words taken from the Art Gallery of NSW:

6-P1050613North’s methodology is concerned with the processes of vision and interaction as they have shaped the landscape.

The emotional ambivalence of the images is reflected in their use of colour, like that of postcards. As one of the first instances of larger format colour art photography in Australia, the images topographically map space as a depersonalised, banal subject. Yet their colour, like that of landscape painting, highlights flora, revealing the number of non-native plants included in Canberra’s design.

I am not sure how long these six photographs are to be on exhibition. At the time of uploading this post,  there is no mention of them on the gallery’s website.

An interesting coincidence. The previous time that we were in this gallery, we spotted Ian North walking in front of these exhibition windows which at the time featured other artwork. I am not sure whether Ian was aware that in just a few months his own works would be right where we met up. So this time, we spotted his art. I wonder who or what will happen next time we visit this spot within the gallery?

I highly recommend a visit to see these images while the opportunity presents itself. My photographs above to not do them justice – you must see them in the flesh within the Canberra Museum and Gallery.

The request I have is for there to be an exhibition of more of this wonderful Canberra suite and to have it combined with later works by Ian North whereby he has returned to other urban areas to capture the contemporary nuance of our built environments. This could then be joined by other photographers who have explored similar themes. There’s a rich and large exhibition of photographs just waiting to happen.

Ian North is represented through the Greenaway Art Gallery in Adelaide.

PS: the exhibition we went to see was: Elioth Gruner: the texture of light. this exhibition finishes 22 June.


Paul Costigan, 10 June 2014


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