Madness: The Photograph and Australia

a review of a very strange review

The Photograph and Australia, AGNSW till 8 June 2015770x314detail_2.jpg.770x314_q85_cropIt is a good thing to read critical reviews of the visual arts. A variety of views is refreshing.

It is a bad habit for some reviewers to have become too close to the artists, dealers or public galleries, so that all they can do is put out the positive spin with no real critical analysis for fear of upsetting someone. On the other hand there is the occasional reviewer who lose the plot and write reviews that are just completely off the planet.

One of the first reviews of the current Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition (AGNSW), The Photograph and Australia, was by John McDonald in the Sydney Morning Herald. This was published the day after the exhibition opened. It was pleasant enough and gave a positive spin to the exhibition and would have provided enough for people to want to see the show. click here.

The same reviewer several weeks later then blasted the exhibition, the curator, the gallery and anyone else who happen to be around. This second review is a complete contrast to the former and seems to be written with another motive in mind. Did he not get his free catalogue? Did he not get offered a second glass of wine at the opening? Did the curator not take him to lunch? Did the Director of the AGNSW not issue him with a free pass to the exhibition? Did a security guard upset him by asking him not to wear his hobnail boots into the exhibition? Did he not sleep well? Seriously it seems that this review is an example of someone making issues out of anything to do with the exhibition.

click here

What follows is my review of the review (the second one) by John McDonald. Along the way I will  apply a rough fact check and try to work out why he takes such a negative stand .

The reviewer states that this exhibition is the largest ever mounted in Australia. Nope – wrong there! And he should know better.

The review is based around a judgement as if this was a survey show. Wrong. The reviewer has reclassified the exhibition as being a survey show so that he can then accuse it of not being one. This is crazy logic.

He makes a claim that there is too much emphasis on the colonial, that is 19th Century, period. And? the trouble with that is? This implied criticism is a misplaced accusation as the emphasis on the 19th Century is one of the strengths of the exhibition. Did the reviewer not read the material and the book on the exhibition? Maybe it is as simple as the reviewer does not understand or like 19th Century Australian photography?

The reviewer had an expectation of the exhibition having all the usual classic photographs. Wrong! and nothing about the exhibition marketing would encourage this expectation. The reviewer is obviously far too conservative and needs to get a life. He needs to learn how to enjoy photographic artworks beyond the usual ‘classic’ ones. Most people would agree that they enjoy seeing the classic but also appreciate the opportunities to see the not so well-known ones.

He says that this exhibition fails to consider the public. Wrong! One only had to observe the people in the exhibition. They were engaged and were taking their time and were exhausted at the end as there was so much to enjoy and engage with.

The reviewer bangs on about what is not in the exhibition. The poor thing! It seems he is so stuck into wanting to see the same photography exhibition over and over again. By his comments he has demonstrated clearly that he was incapable of understanding that this exhibition was put together intelligently with themes to open up other ways of viewing some of the photographs we know and to introduce the audience to many other works that they probably are were not aware of.

The reviewer has constructed a very weird series of accusations that beggars belief. For instance he says that the curator has avoided well-known photographs. Maybe he has missed the point even more than any sane person could image. The photographers were chosen not because they were famous today but because they were in circulation at various times in our history and when put together as part of this wonderful exhibition, they bring together pieces of the puzzle of how the images of Australia were developed.

Just for the exercise I googled some of the ones that John McDonald sees as being ignored. And there was an essay online by John McDonald about Jeff Carter – so obviously he was keen to see this photographer profiled. I also found that he has curated an exhibition by Richard Woldendorp; so that would be an interest of his naturally. Enough said.

Then there is this very strange last sentence: “Visitors must abandon any idea of a sweeping survey and get ready for a show detailing the origins of photography in Australia.” To reiterate, it is easy to abandon the idea of a survey – because it was never meant to be one  – except in the crazy regions of a mind which seems to have lost the plot. As for “get ready for a show detailing the origins of photography in Australia” – I am not sure what he means or is it that he has run out of attack words and has tried to be sensible in his last words – but failed again.

This Sydney Morning Herald review is a lost opportunity. People read the paper to enjoy well-informed, thoughtful and intelligent critical review.s. This was not one of those.  What a lost opportunity for the people of Sydney as there are so few reviews of such exhibitions.

People are not fools and can recognise weird behaviour when they see it. Maybe someone else at the Sydney Morning Herald should be doing photography reviews.

I still wonder what set him off. Did someone not be nice enough to him on the opening night? Who knows and in the long run – who cares  – as people are getting along to see the exhibition and have recognised it is an important, successful and engaging exhibition.

The AGNSW and the curator are to be congratulated. The reviewer needs to get over whatever ‘it’ is that bothers him.

and here’s my review of the exhibition – click here

Rating the SMH review as being helpful and accurate: Rating 2/10


Paul Costigan

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