Is the tenth Ballarat International Foto Biennale (BIFB) the best one yet? The father of BIFB, Jeff Moorfoot, who established the festival in 2005 and retired as creative director in 2015, thinks it is.
It’s high praise from Jeff, who came away from BIFB’s opening weekend with this to say on Facebook: ‘Great launch day today at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale. Crowds everywhere. Packed house at the Regent Theatre for Platon’s talk, also for Martyn Jolly’s lantern slide show, and a packed audience for the official opening at the Mining Exchange, preceded by the nude shoot on the verandah of the George Hotel opposite. And great to reconnect with so many faces and friends from previous events. Best festival yet.’
Jeff attended the three previous Biennales only as an audience member. While impressed by the financial growth under the leadership of his successor, Fiona Sweet, he didn’t particularly enjoy the actual festival. He wasn’t alone. The event lacked a diverse range of photography, catering more towards pretentious curators with academic rather than photographic credentials.
Those years finished at the end of 2022 when Fiona stepped down as director and was replaced by Warrnambool Art Gallery director, Vanessa Gerrans, who invited Jeff to curate The Real Thing for the tenth edition of BIFB’s Core Program.
‘I am quite enjoying it,’ Jeff told Inside Imaging in the week leading up to BIFB’s launch. ‘It’s nice of Vanessa to have reached out because I had nothing to do with the festival for three editions. Which kind of suited me because I was able to make a clean break from the festival, and I wasn’t hanging around. It was good to have that break, and it’s interesting to be back and part of it again.’
Jeff doesn’t regret retiring as BIFB creative director. And his glimpse of how things operate nowadays only reinforced his decision. ‘It’s not something I’d ever want to do again – be a festival director – cause things have changed so much. But it’s good to dip my toe in the water.’
Jeff is a bit of a maverick. He ran BIFB with an egalitarian DIY attitude that relied heavily on a team of volunteers. The festival became immense with this left field approach, despite there never being quite enough funding. Complying with the bureaucratic red tape is what burned Jeff out the most, and that red tape has since grown in length. While the final form of Jeff’s BIFB was always polished, nowadays the City of Ballarat would probably think twice before handing the keys to the city to someone with Jeff’s credentials.
‘My philosophy has always been egalitarian – I don’t believe in stars.’
Here’s how one dedicated volunteer, a professional photographer who regularly shows work at the festival, described ‘the old BIFB’ to Inside Imaging in 2019:
‘I miss the old creative chaos of the office before the festival – the nostalgic and mad framing days and ad-hoc tasks that needed doing yesterday. But most importantly, what I miss is the community that we have created over the years.’
Jeff revived this egalitarian approach when curating The Real Thing, and there was even an element of the ‘creative chaos’ when we spoke to him and he entered the final stages of pulling the show together. Framing. Printing. Cutting vinyl.
‘The challenge this time is nothing like back in the Biennale days,’ he responded when asked if curating The Real Thing was giving him flashbacks. ‘First one we did back in Ballarat, I remember we were still hanging prints on the walls at venues while the audience was coming in the door for the opening.’
For The Real Thing, Jeff invited a geographical spread of Victorian photographers who specialise in different genres of photography.
‘I based the whole thing on how I use to curate the festival. A diversity of photography. If it’s all a single genre, you’ve lost an audience if part of them doesn’t appreciate or like that sort of photography. It’s about having a little bit of something for everybody. And paying hommage to all those different aspects of the medium.’
Jeff invited an all-Victorian smorgasbord of commercial photographers, news photographers, alternative process specialists, and art photographers to participate.
John Ansell (Traralgon)
Robert Ashton (Airey’s Inlet)
Tim Burder (Daylesford)
Andrew Chapman OAM (Warragul)
Peter Dunphy (Beechworth)
Trevor Foon (Wonthaggi)
Jacqui Henshaw (Macedon)
Aldona Kmiec (Melbourne/Ballarat/Gippsland)
Julie Millowick OAM (Fryerstown)
Rachel Mounsey (Mallacoota)
Harry Nankin (Castlemaine)
Michael Rayner (Castlemaine)
Kim Percy (Hepburn Springs)
Susan Purdy (Gippsland)
Sandy Scheltema (Trentham)
Ellie Young (Trentham East)
Jeff knows most of them. For instance, Tim Burder is a former BIFB treasurer, Kim Percy lives nearby, Andrew Chapman is someone Jeff’s ‘known for years just running into around the traps’, Aldona Kmiec is a BIFB regular, Jeff shared a studio with Michael Rayner’s brother, Trevor Foon he knows from the AIPP, and Jeff started his career as Peter Dunphy’s assistant.
The Real Thing isn’t just the name of the exhibition Jeff was assigned to curate. It’s the festival’s overarching theme.
‘Most of the international festivals seem to have a theme and I wonder why,’ he said. ‘You’re suppose to go to a festival with a theme and you look at all this work and go “ah yes, okay, I see how all this relates to the theme”. But I’ve never actually been to a festival that’s been like that. That’s why Ballarat never had a theme [when I ran it].’
Jeff did an online search of The Real Thing and, of course, the top results are Australian musician’s Russell Morris 1969 hit song notable for its memorable refrain, ‘Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow’.
Memorable, but hardly meaningful. ‘That kind of suited me down to a tee,’ he said, ‘the line I like most is “Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow”. So he ran with this as part of his brief to the Victorian photographers, who each submitted a short series of pictures.
The exhibition is, indeed, diverse. Michael Rayner’s pictures of historic railroad bridges would easily fit in a V-Line commercial; Peter Dunphy photos showcase beautiful but terrifyingly inhospitable landscapes; Andrew Chapman explores the demise of Victoria’s coal-fired power stations; Robert Ashton’s wetplate collodian prints show a different side to the Aussie bush; Aldona Kmiec’s pictures are of a Sri Lankan refugee family who settled in Ballarat; Rachel Mounsey submitted environmental portraits of Mallacoota surfers; John Ansell’s portrait shows a side of Gippsland that breaks stereotypes; and on it goes.
‘It’s just something to hang your hat on, I guess, and some artists found a way to relate what they were doing to The Real Thing. Some just didn’t bother. That’s fine with me. It’s about the pictures, not the words.’
Jeff’s not kidding when he states it’s about the pictures, not the words. He limited the artist statements to roughly 200 words, ‘so you can’t waffle that much – I’m not a highly intellectual type – I’ve always been about the image’.
Jeff finds curators are often entrenched in academia, leading to some undesirable outcomes where there are long-winded paragraphs accompanying the photography. Anyone who has observed how people interact with printed photography will know this approach rarely captivates a large audience. It’s either arrogance or foolishness to think the average audience member will spend a couple of minutes reading tiny print accompanying some strange abstract art photo. The majority of average folk aren’t likely to spend more than 30 seconds on each picture, unless they’re familiar with the work or artist, or really love what they see. This is particularly the case at a major photo festival, where there are thousands of images to explore.
‘That’s where I think the festival fell down a bit with Fiona Sweet. It was about the curators and what they had to say. And from that ilk – the academics – they generally invite photographers to be part of their show based on abstract thoughts and words. The deeper meaning.’
When Jeff visits an exhibition – he’s been to a few – he spends time analysing the photography he likes. ‘I’m not looking for deeper meaning or anything, but I’m trying to figure out what caught my eye. If a work on a wall really strikes me, I start thinking about why. What are the elements that made me want to stop and look at it.
‘I’ve always thought that’s the best way to build an aesthetic. You look at a picture and might decide you like the shape, the meaning, the colour, or structure. Once you start isolating those things, you can use them in your own work. It also works the other way around with what you don’t like. You might look and wonder “gee why did they put that there”. And hopefully, further down the track, when you’re making a picture, you can include what you like, and remove what you don’t like.’
– The Real Thing is showing at 43 Lydiard Street, as part of the Ballarat International Foto Biennale Core Program. August 26 – October 22. Images in this article are pulled from a digital catalogue, which is available in hard copy for purchase.