A huge and dazzling exhibit that reexamines how we think

The National Gallery of Victoria’s (NGV) Photography: Real and Intended exhibit, which is nearly 200 years old, can be seen as an attempt to understand its history.

This is a huge, dazzling, 311-photo exhibition. The basic thesis is that some photos are real, others are the product of the photographer’s imagination, and many are a combination of both.

The NGV’s collection of photographs and the curator’s perspective, Susan Van Wyk, a senior curator at the NGV who is renowned for her expertise and experience, determined the parameters of this exhibition.

The curator, to his credit, has chosen not to follow a chronological order from daguerreotypes through digital images, though both are featured in the exhibit. Instead, he has created 21 different thematic categories such as light, environment and death, conflict or work, play, and consumption.

Australian artists in international context

Categories have no clear boundaries. The categories are porous.

The Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia will be exhibiting Photography: Real and Imagined from October 13, 2023 to February 4, 2024. Photo: Lillie Thompson.

The broad thematic structure allows viewers to create a mega-narrative of the show.

It is also clear that there is a desire to present the work of Australian Photographers in an international context.

This exhibition is a rich collection of Australian photographers. It is not a purely Anglo-American view of the history and development of photography. Australian photographers, New Zealanders, and their Asian counterparts are all included.

The Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia will be exhibiting Photography: Real and Imagined from October 13, 2023 to February 4, 2024. Photo: Lillie Thompson.

The NGV claims to have the first curatorial photography department in Australia. However, in its 55-year history, the collection has serious gaps.

As an example, Russian constructivists, such as Aleksandr Rodchenko (who, to my knowledge, is only represented in the NGV’s collection by a small booklet), are prominent in any history of photography presented by British, European, and American museums. Eastern European photographers also tend to be underrepresented.

Read more: Friday essay: 10 photography exhibitions that defined Australia

Key moments, and surprises

This exhibition brings together the classic with the innovative and unexpected.

There are many key moments in photography history that have been predicted. These include Dora Maar and Man Ray. Also, Andre Kertesz. Henri Cartier Bresson. Dorothea Lange. Eadweard Moybridge. Bill Brandt. Lee Miller.

All of them are included in the exhibit and represented by their iconic pieces.

Henri Cartier Bresson Juvisy France 1938, printed 1990s. Gelatin silver photo 29.1 cm x 44.39 cm (image). National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Purchased by NGV Foundation in 2015. (c) Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos. Photo: Nicholas Umek / NGV.

Henri Cartier Bresson, a radical leftist photographer, created a deliberately subversive photograph in Juvisy (1938), also known as Sunday by the Marne.

The image was taken at the height of the Great Depression. It shows the popular French left-wing government who, in 1936, legislated the right of French workers to two weeks paid vacation. The working class enjoys a picnic in Juvisy to the south-west of Paris.

Dorothea Lange. Towards Los Angeles California 1936. Printed c. 1975. Gelatin silver photo 39.6 cm x 39.1cm (image); 40.80 cm x 50.50 cm (sheet). National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Purchased 1975 (c) Library of Congress FSA Collection. Photo: Predrag Cancar/NGV.

Dorothea Lange contrasts, at about the same period, the agony of unemployed people trekking to find work with a billboard promoting the comforts and conveniences of train travel. A quote attributed to her summarizes much of her work.

The world has a lot of potential for good photos, no matter how bad they are. To be good, photos must be filled with the world.

Man Ray’s Kiki With African Mask (1926), also known as Noire et blanc (Black and White), is one of the world’s most famous photos. Surrealist Man Ray juxtaposes his mistress and Muse, Kiki (Alice Prin), who has her eyes closed, with a black African ceremony mask.

Man Ray, Kiki, African Mask, 1926. Gelatin silver photo 21.1 x 27,6 cm (image); 22.1, 28.5 cm (sheet). National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. Purchased by The Art Foundation of Victoria, with assistance from Miss Flora MacDonald Anderson and Mrs Ethel Elizabeth Ogilvy, Founders Benefactors in 1983. (c) MAN RAY TRUST / ADAGP Paris. Copyright Agency Australia. Photo: Helen Oliver-Skuse / NGV.

The photo was controversial at the time it was published and is still contentious today.

The exhibition also includes a number of modern classics, such as Pat Brassington’s Rosa (2014), PollyBorland’ss Untitled (2018), from the MORPH Series 201,8 and Robyn Sacey’s There’sNothingg to see here (2017), which can be seen as being on the edge of the uncanny. We are invited to explore a world that is unexpected beyond the familiar facade.

Untitled 2018, by Polly Borland, from the MORPH Series 2018, will be on view at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia in Photography: Real & Imagined from October 13, 2023 – January 4, 2024. Photo: Lillie Thompson.

Reinterpreting our world

Even before digital software was created, photography’s reputation as a reliable facsimile had been slowly eroded. It is said that “paintings can deceive but photographs never lie”. This was because they were perceived to be unable to lie.

The New Zealand-born photographer Patrick Pound’s work Pictures of People that look dead but (probably Aren’t) (2011-14) is one of the fascinating works in the exhibit. This is an installation consisting mainly of found photos where the audience can create a narrative about life and death.

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