Why Photographs are Important – GCCAG Speech


Gold Coast City Art Gallery Dinner

in Honour of Mrs Win Schubert, AO ::

Text of a short speech by the writer and curator, Alasdair Foster :


Padding 01 (75) 1250The celebrated curator, historian and critic, John Szarkowski, described the art of photography as having two distinct, but interconnected, modes. On the one hand, a photograph could be understood as a mirror reflecting a portrait of the artist who made it. On the other hand, it could be understood as a window through which one might better know the world. These two modes describe a continuing dialogue between the private and the public. This is not a hard and fast division of photography into two unrelated camps, but rather a description of two poles that define an axis about which the art of photography turns.

The mirror does not simply reflect a portrait of the artist, but also the viewer. Such images seek to connect the inner experience of two individuals in a way that words cannot; to create a private and privileged conversation between the one who makes and the one who looks. The mirror brings insight: literally ‘sight from within’.

The window seeks to show us something of the world beyond our self. In this case, the photographer is a guide or fellow traveller introducing something which exists outside of either maker or viewer, albeit from a personal perspective. It is not so much that we feel what the artist feels, as that the artist invites us to enter into another place, another situation and to use our imagination to feel what this might be like. The window engenders empathy – the ability to sense another person’s experience from their perspective.

But there is another quality that is unique to photography. That gives it its edge, its immediacy… and that is its tenacious connection with the real. However plain or poetic; however manipulated or unmodified; however exotic or banal, when the camera shutter slices a moment of time and freezes it forever, it preserves something of the world that was. What is then done with that photograph – however much it is pictorially manipulated or contextualised by description – the undertow of the real persists; tugging gently at our sleeve. Of course, photographs can be used to lie, to mislead, to propagandise and to fantasize, just as histories can be written from many perspectives. But, unlike histories, which might be totally fabricated, a photograph was always born in a moment of reality.

This simple fact gives photography an immediacy that is not always present in the other plastic arts. An immediacy that can be challenging, because it suggests that we must consider our own emotional, philosophical and ethical relation to what we apprehend, if for no other reason than that we share the world from which this image was excised. Whether we experience a private dialogue with the photographer through the work, or an affective experience of something beyond ourselves in that part of the world we call ‘public’, a photograph nudges us to ask not only where we are looking, but also the perspective we take. It asks us to consider where we stand.

Gold Coast is one of the fastest growing cities anywhere in Australia. Change brings instability. Instability opens opportunities, but it can also reveal weaknesses. Citizens must engage actively and energetically in thinking about the kind of community in which they want to live and the kind of relationships they want with other people and, indeed, with themselves. We sometimes forget that art is not about luxury commodities for the uber-rich and spectacle for the masses. It is the way we speak to ourselves, of ourselves. It is the means to culture. And a society without culture is just a bunch of people getting by.

It is through insight that we learn about ourselves and through empathy that we relate to others, even if we do not agree with them or even understand them. And it is by knowing where we stand, and standing firm, that we become actively empowered citizens taking our place in the world. It is, then, both prudent and provident that the Gold Coast City Art Gallery has, within its comprehensive art program, a very special place for the medium of photography. And it is indeed fortunate that this has been nurtured through the generosity of their visionary benefactor, Win Schubert and in the memory of the artist and curator Josephine Ulrick.

We live in the age of information. We are inundated with facts. But facts are not knowledge and information is not wisdom. It is therefore essential that, as a community, we have places like the Gold Coast City Art Gallery; places to pause, to think and, most especially, to feel. To engage the many aspects of our intelligence – rational and emotional: to imagine. For it is through imagination that we gain insight and feel empathy: to find our place in the world and to help make that world a place we want to be.

Alasdair Foster
9 May 2015

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One Response to “Why Photographs are Important – GCCAG Speech”
  1. Well said, Alasdair. Your speech defines what many of us feel when we make or contemplate a photograph. Your words are sharp and wise. Knowledge makes societies. Culture makes civilizations. Best regards from Roberto.

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  • The majority of the texts on this site are by Alasdair Foster and represent his opinions. However, in order to facilitate a useful diversity of views, some texts have been invited from artists and colleagues around the world, while others appear as independent comments. These opinions and comments are not necessarily those of Alasdair Foster or Cultural Development Consulting (CDC). All data and information on this site is provided on an as-is basis. While every effort is made to be as thorough as possible, neither Alasdair Foster nor CDC make representations as to accuracy, completeness, currency, suitability or validity of any information on this site and will not be liable for any errors, omissions or delays in this information or any losses, injuries or damages arising from its display or use.
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