Ian North, Foundation Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Australia

Ian North

Interview conducted 7 September, 2016

Daniel Palmer: How did you come to be a photography curator?

Ian North: I was interested in the medium of photography from a fairly tender age. As it happened, the most expensive gifts I received as a child were cameras. I was very lucky! The first was an Agfa Isolette, which was displayed in the local chemist shop window when I was about twelve, a little folding camera taking medium format film. Later, when I was about sixteen, I received, gratefully, one of those horrible Praktica East German single-lens reflexes. After study and odd jobs in the visual arts I became a regional gallery director in New Zealand when I was about twenty-four, and in that capacity I got to know John B. Turner, and his friend or associate David Millar. They came to me to sound out the possibility of displaying photographs of the Māori in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The photographs were skilfully printed by John, who was then a technician at the National Museum in Wellington, from the original glass plate negatives in the museum’s collection.

I was blown away by them, I thought they were fantastically riveting images, so I agreed to the idea of having an exhibition called Māori in Focus. My role was to select the works for exhibition in my gallery, the Manawatu Art Gallery, so that was the first time I curated anything to do with photography. We’re talking 1969-1970, I think, a long time ago! Anyway, that was a considerable success, it was John B. Turner and David Miller’s idea, but I had the carriage of it and I was very proud of it. Actually, I still am. At the time there wasn’t a pattern of photographic exhibitions appearing, or photography as art at any rate. The exhibition was picked up by the Auckland City Art Gallery and exhibited up there, which was tantamount to going to Broadway in New Zealand terms, and it attracted quite a lot of attention and generated follow-up activities. However I wasn’t around to see them, because I left New Zealand in 1971.

DP: You left to become a painting curator at the Art Gallery of South Australia?

IN: Curator of Paintings, that’s right. In that capacity I was able to rejig the international art acquisition program, which I thought had been very stodgy. On an overseas trip in 1972 I approached Ronald Alley from the Tate Gallery in London and John Stringer from The Museum of Modern Art in New York, who agreed to act as spotters. I went back to Adelaide and spoke to my very benign director John Baily, who agreed with the arrangement, and we went from there. With their help, we bought works by Gerhard Richter, Hamish Fulton, Jan Dibbets, Dennis Oppenheim, Gilbert and George and others. A pretty hot group of artists actually, and some of them were photographic in their output, so to speak.

DP: My understanding is that around the same time, the Department of Prints and Drawings added the term Photography to its department with curator Alison Carroll? Were you involved with that?

IN: Alison certainly encouraged the acquisition of contemporary Australian artists and photographers. I don’t think I had much to do officially with the contemporary Australian photo collecting, though I certainly took a keen interest in it. Incidentally I remember helping organise John Szarkowski to meet a few locals in Adelaide when he visited Australia in 1974. I tried to put together some sort of audience for him. As I recall he turned up to a little gathering of the few commercial and vaguely artistic photographers I could find. The venue was the Bonython Galleries, North Adelaide, or maybe it was the Llewellyn Galleries by then. Again, if I’m not wrong, he brought along a photographic print, or a reproduction of one, and tried to get everyone to talk about it – like an art school seminar.

DP: During your time at the Art Gallery of South Australia, you were also making your own photographs?

IN: Yes, but I didn’t tell anybody!

DP: And then in 1980 you moved to Canberra to take up the new position of Foundation Curator of Photography at the Australian National Gallery. Can you tell me about what you encountered when you arrived?

IN: It was a wonderful environment in two ways. One was as far as my own work was concerned. The air was naturally very clear, especially in winter with the sub-alpine climate, so things stuck out with an almost surreal clarity. I photographed on the weekends; I would typically park the car somewhere, about three o’clock in the afternoon, say, and walk until dusk and see what happened.

DP: And of course the result is your Canberra Suite (1980–81). Meanwhile, during the working week at the Gallery, you must have been very busy organising everything before the public opening in 1982?

IN: As far as the gallery was concerned, it was fairly chaotic. They had bought portfolios recently printed by people like Yousuf Karsh and Ansel Adams, but it was sort of “convenience” buying. I won’t say “bad” buying, but it wasn’t vintage stuff. I found nonetheless that the atmosphere at the gallery was very pro-photographic. James Mollison, the Director, was very interested in photography, and acted as a buyer before I came on the scene. He bought American work and he also bought quite a lot of contemporary Australian work for the Philip Morris Collection, which was duly given to the gallery.

DP: It’s quite remarkable how many exhibitions of photography were staged at the gallery in those early years. In 1982 there was a special issue of Art & Australia dedicated to the gallery, and you wrote a few pages called “Photography at the Australian National Gallery”. You talk about how strong the photography department was, how large the gallery space was for exhibiting, photography’s simultaneous integration into the permanent display of Australian art, the generous acquisition budget and so on. You also talk about the staffing with four curatorial staff, who of course were yourself, Helen Ennis, Martyn Jolly, and Isobel Crombie. Quite an extraordinary team of people who have each went on to contribute in the field in important ways. Did you employ all of those people yourself?

IN: Yes, it was a wonderful team, the “dream team” as I have publically identified them on a number of occasions. It’s been a real source of pleasure to me to see how well they’ve all done. Yes, I was able to appoint them, going through the inevitable committee structures of course. It took a year or two to get it all together. I was only at the gallery just under five years, but I’ve always maintained, or felt, that we did about twenty years’ work in that time. We worked very hard and we also had a huge budget for acquisitions, which was rare. It was probably the biggest in absolute terms in any publically funded gallery in the world at the time. And we knew it couldn’t last, as well, and so we had to get our skates on.

I found to my amazement and delight a very pro-contemporary art atmosphere at the NGA. I thought that the Art Gallery of South Australia was the only gallery in Australia collecting work by contemporary artists such as Hamish Fulton – but in fact the National Gallery was collecting it in even greater quantities than we could have hoped to in South Australia.

DP: What was your collecting and exhibiting rationale, in those early years?

IN: Well, that’s a very good question. It seemed necessary to bring it to order. As far as Australian work was concerned, it was in my mind equal in value to the international collection. Clearly most of the nineteenth century work that had been curated was in public libraries, so that was out-of-bounds, but we did selectively buy in that area.

DP: When you say “out-of-bounds”, do you mean you couldn’t replicate the purchases if they were already held in institutions like the National Library of Australia?

IN: It just wasn’t available to purchase. But we concentrated heavily on major figures of the twentieth century, meaning Harold Cazneaux, Max Dupain and David Moore. We bought up some very solid collections of those three figures in particular, and a host of others as well.

DP: In the Art & Australia article, you wrote that “negatives, documents, working tools and memorabilia are also actively sought for the Gallery’s Australian art archive”. I found this quite unusual, since art galleries seldom collect negatives.

IN: I think that was a moment of exuberance, rather than reality. Although we did acquire negatives by Carol Jerrems as part of her archive, as I recall.

DP: Those first few years resulted in a string of major photography exhibitions. What do you remember as the highlights of those early years?

IN: I don’t remember a single highlight as such, I think it was the overall result of bringing things into shape, the acquisitions and exhibitions in the dedicated photography gallery. We pioneered the use of room brochures, which were picked up by other departments in the institution. You’ve seen them I’m sure, just simple one or two-page, or sometimes three- or four-page A4 catalogues, which were available by donation. So it was an educational process which we were engaged with as far as the public was concerned. I remember we used to agonise over wall texts. As you know, words like “modernist” or “picture plane” would throw your average visitor, so we had to find an expression which made sense to them. I know for the opening we had two shows ready to go, “Australian Art” and “International 1920–1980”, although a last-minute architectural change meant that one of them couldn’t open. I can’t remember which one was which.

DP: After 1984 you left the Gallery to become Head of the South Australian School of Art. Why did you leave the Gallery?

IN: It’s very simple: I had a passionate desire to make my own work. Art ruined my career! I loved being a curator and I loved being at the National Gallery, so it was very hard to leave. It was a dream job and I had a fabulous team, everyone was interested and actually everybody in the whole gallery was interested, it seemed – the registrar for example, the late Warwick Reeder, was very interested in nineteenth century photography.

DP: Having worked inside and outside of the institution, could you reflect on some of the changes that you’ve seen in both the medium of photography and also how it is positioned in museums and galleries in Australia?

IN: I’m not sure if I’m across all the activities in the various state galleries to answer fully, but it seems that the National Gallery has been able to carry on carrying on quite well, with Helen and Kate Davidson and then of course with Gael Newton, whose contribution was great. And they’re lucky to have Shaune Lakin who’s obviously a very bright person and seems to have a good aesthetic sense – which is I think very positive.

DP: In the state galleries, we now have a situation where even if photography departments still exist, dedicated spaces to exhibit photographs are increasingly disappearing. Is this simply a reflection of how contemporary art operates in the so-called “post-medium condition”?

IN: Yes, that’s right. You could argue they’re curating the culture rather than a medium. But I think you can do both, and should do both, because the culture speaks for itself. It’s a concatenation of stimuli, which photography needs to be a part of, an important part. But also photography has its own traditions and its histories. Also, the practical aspect of just looking after the physical objects means that a separate department is pretty much called for. Maybe you get away with folding it in with Drawings and Prints. That’s what they do at the Art Gallery of South Australia of course.

DP: Meanwhile with the recent funding losses of the Australian Centre for Photography (ACP) and the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP), there appears to be a sense that media-specific galleries are no longer required. Do you have any thoughts on that?

IN: I think there is sufficient strength in photographic traditions and output in considerations for a specifically oriented organisation like the ACP to continue, especially if it’s had such a distinguished history, not as a defining final cause.

DP: Why do you think there is this shift away from the medium? Is it because of cuts to budgets, or is it because of the relatively prominent position of photography in contemporary art, whereby the medium is a victim of its own success?

IN: It’s a bit cynical of me to say this, but I think it stems from the desire of bureaucrats, and directors, to be seen to be cutting where they can. It is probably just as banal as that! I could be wrong – I hope I’m wrong…

DP: In the process, we lose expertise and we lose the research ability of curators with deep knowledge and appreciation of the medium. Actually, you touched on this very topic in a lecture at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (“Spooked: Art Museums, Photography and the Problem of the Real”) later published in that book I edited, Photogenic (2005). In that essay, you wrote: “The medium went from acceptance in the 1970s through the 1980s to submergence in today’s mega-visual mainstream. The National Gallery of Australia presented a cross-media display in its Australian art section when it opened in 1982, including photography, while also running a dedicated, and hugely popular, photography gallery. Some years later our museums confusedly deemed it valid to let go of the idea of media-dedicated spaces without fully embracing the idea of displays along cultural rather than media-specific lines. Result: amnesiac ruin. Stroll around your average art museum’s permanent collections. In contradistinction to the situation a decade ago, you might find a few photographs in the colonial corner, in the contemporary area, or nowhere: this, in spite of widespread curatorial assent, intellectually, to the medium’s importance”. Do you have anything further to add to that?

IN: I pretty much agree with it!

DP: In that essay you also speak of photography as the “ghost in the machine” of contemporary art. Can you speak any more to that idea?

IN: Well, I still feel that general histories of art, including general histories of art as conveyed in museum displays, don’t give photography enough of a go – in terms of its actual merit and aesthetic power. For example, is someone like Robert Adams a household name, or William Eggleston? In my view they should be; they are very fine artists indeed and they don’t get a run against the mega-visual stuff, the big brassy neo-Modernist artists producing expensive baubles for the rich.

DP: At the same time, some have argued that photography that mainly enters the gallery now, so-called “museum photography”, tends towards the spectacular (large-scale, and so on).

IN: Yes, and it’s a limited view, it’s a particular view of what hits the public over the head.

DP: Meanwhile, photography beyond the art museum is experienced primarily on screens. Do you think this impacts upon what a curator can do in a gallery? Perhaps it advantages the physical presence of an object? In your view, do art museums have any sort of responsibility to engage with new digital modes of presentation?

IN: There’s a term for that, isn’t there: “born digital”, referring to works that are generated and stay in the digital domain. It’s a vexed question, to put it mildly, and I don’t envy curators these days dealing with that question. Because as you know, as everyone knows, the various electronic formats change weekly, how do you keep up with them? How on earth do you propose to keep them ad infinitum? It’s bad enough working out how to keep Type-C colour prints in reasonable shape. But this is much worse, much more difficult and much more impossible actually. So maybe we just have to accept that museums have a limited capacity to “net” the most important art. You could argue, I suppose, that the digital domain is a completely different medium from analogue, but so many people including me mix them, use both in the process of making artworks, that it’s hard to draw a strong line between the two. I’ve noticed myself sometimes that images on the screen look much better than the final print. Back-lit, more vibrant. It’s a very difficult question.

DP: I think when the output is physical it’s not really an issue. What I’m curious about is the gallery’s capacity and willingness to engage with the culture of online photography more broadly. Some galleries are starting to explore this territory. For instance, photography galleries such as Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland and the International Center for Photography in New York have experimented with different display techniques and involving the audience through participatory engagement and so on.

IN: I would suggest that most artists are not going to maintain a career through work that’s unsellable and uncollectable.

DP: Perhaps this helps account for the recent attention to the “object” quality of photographs – the general interest in the photo-sculptural, folded prints and the return to things like photograms. What do you make of all of this?

IN: Personally speaking I get a bit impatient with the resurrection of old media. It’s a bit too cute for my taste. But in the broader sense I’m very sympathetic to the idea of subject matter in an old-fashioned sense re-emerging, and getting away from the fetish of the theoretical “net”, the development of which is a different, distinctive activity in its own right.

DP: Finally, which Australian exhibitions of photography do you recall as the most memorable?

IN: I think probably the show Gael Newton did of Max Dupain’s work in the 1970s, which had a real impact. And the Harold Cazneaux show at the Art Gallery of New South Wales was also very interesting. I mention these not so much as exhibitions and displays of museum-craft, just the impact of the work – seeing the work more or less for the first time. I must say, some of the shows that the Photographers’ Gallery in Melbourne held were pretty speccy. The 1970s and 1980s, as other people have pointed out, was a time when there was a process of claiming more and more of the world for art. It was a time of saying a broken bottle on the pavement could be perfectly fine subject matter, or a cloud disappearing behind a tree. It was a very exuberant time and, as you know very well, it was a time when the counterculture still had some life. And you recall there was some wonderful Australian work done in the 1970s. Wes Stacey’s The Road (1974–5) is well known, of course, but there’s also Jon Rhodes’s very impressive Just Another Sunrise (1974–5), among many others.

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Professor Ian North AM has exhibited widely as an artist (using photography and painting, often combined) in Sydney, London, Adelaide, as well as various locations in the United States and Asia, particularly exploring considerations of place, identity and “the imperial eye”. He has had fourteen solo shows since 1986. He also worked as a museum curator for fifteen years. From 1969–71 he was Director of the Manawatu Art Gallery, Aotearoa/New Zealand, before immigrating to Australia to become Curator of Paintings at the Art Gallery of South Australia, 1971–80, and then Foundation Curator of Photography at the Australian National Gallery 1980–84. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Visual Arts, University of Adelaide, and since 2001 has actively contributed to the innovative postgraduate art history program offered jointly by the University of Adelaide and the Art Gallery of South Australia.