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Viewfinder exhibition: ‘Australia’s photo album’

The National Library of Australia in Canberra is exhibiting a major Australian documentary photography retrospective, Viewfinder: Photography from the 1970s to Now.

Surfer Boys and Girls on Beach, Lorne, 1975 – courtesy of the Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive. Photo: Rennie Ellis.

The exhibition is 125 images from the Library’s expansive archive, aiming to showcase how Australian society has changed, with a focus on the ‘beauty of everyday life’.

Here’s the event description:

‘Images of what were traditionally quintessential Australian figures – shearers, dancers, diggers, knitters, sporting heroes and bronzed bodies on the beach – are present, but these characters and images are now part of a much bigger, and far more inclusive, picture, now featuring winged angels at Mardi Gras, the lives of migrants and the joy of family life.

Viewfinder also focusses on the evolving nature of photography as a way of recording our lives and highlights the significant technological advances and increasing diversity of styles, approaches and techniques utilised by photographers over the past five decades.
Just as your photo albums, whether physical or digital, tell your story, documentary photographers capture images that help us to understand a place and its people, and to plot our way forward in an uncertain world.​’

Viewfinder includes work by well-known Australian photographers, such as Rennie Ellis, William Yang, Tracey Moffatt, Peter Dombrovskis, Jon Rhodes, Mervyn Bishop, Roger Garwood, Dave Tacon, and others.

Curator Matthew Jones started working on Viewfinder during the Covid-19 lockdown by exploring and researching the Library’s digitised image collection through Trove.

‘Preparing an exhibition in this way made me reflect on how the digital revolution has vastly increased our ability to visually document and see our world,’ he said.

National Library of Australia director-general, Marie-Louise Ayres, describes the exhibition as Australia’s family photo album.

Australian Renton Millar, world champion professional skateboarder, performs a method air above a half pipe ramp, before a crowd of young onlookers at Prahran, Victoria, 8 April 2009. Photo: Dave Tacon.

‘They say a picture paints 1000 words, but from this survey of images … a single word comes to mind for me, and that is change,’ Ayres told the Canberra Times. ‘We’ve undergone huge social changes in the last 50 years and this exhibition is a brilliant way for us to showcase the changing lives and lived experiences of those in different communities.’

Jones trawled through tens of thousands of images for the exhibition and noted a distinct shift in the dynamic between photographers and their subjects.

‘When I looked at a lot of earlier photos initially … it always felt like the subject was distant, but there was a warmth between some of the subjects and the way they were reacting to the camera in the later photos, which I thought was quite interesting,’ he told the Canberra Times. ‘Photographers were changing the way that they were interacting with their subjects and trying to collaborate with them more.

‘I think it was a general practice thing in the 70s when people started going to photography schools and art schools, they were made more aware of the subjective nature of photography.’

Jimmy Sing, Glebe, Sydney 1974. Photo: Jon Rhodes.

– Viewfinder: Photography from the 1970s to Now is showing at the National Library of Australia until March 13, 2022.

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