Category Archives: Photography

David Mist collection digitization project

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Portrait of children published in ‘Sydney: a book of photographs’, 1969

Portrait of children published in ‘Sydney: a book of photographs’, 1969

The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences holds two important photography archives related to Sydney photographer David Mist – the Studio Ten archive (92/401) acquired as a gift of the photographer in 1992, and the David Mist archive (96/44/1) acquired as a gift of the photographer under the Australian Government Taxation Incentives for the Arts program in 1996. In recent years David Mist has been helping digitize these irreplaceable analogue collections with the Museum regularly lending David batches of negatives and transparencies to scan. These digital records then get added to the Collection Database. Thank you David!
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The Art of Curating

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Guest in the ‘In your face: contemporary graphic design’ exhibition (Nathan Jurevicius case study), Sydney Design Festival launch, August 2006. Photo: Prudence Upton.

Guest in the ‘In your face: contemporary graphic design’ exhibition (Nathan Jurevicius case study), Sydney Design Festival launch, August 2006. Photo: Prudence Upton.

As the Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences in Sydney undertakes a restructure, downsizing staff numbers as it endeavours to become more nimble and sustainable, curators will soon be re-applying for their jobs. My thoughts turn to the often envied, sometimes maligned, role of the curator and to curatorial competencies.

What makes a competent curator? 

After almost 30 years of experience, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the most important attributes of a competent curator, is the ability to be discerning (though I’m not exactly sure how one would go about measuring this capability). I’d be interested to hear your views on which attribute you think is most important.

Being discerning involves standing one step back from your own personal preferences, choosing not necessarily what you like, but what’s significant in context. I think this is one of the least understood of all the curatorial roles, and together with the ability to make smart connections between objects, one of the most important. In being discerning, curators make complex decisions about what to acquire, and what the most appropriate juxtaposition of objects and ideas might be in displays. How often have I heard it assumed that a curator loves something simply because they’ve chosen it for display or acquisition? This simplistic view is offensive. Personal taste shouldn’t take precedence in curatorial work. Personal preference is one of the last emotions one brings to professional considerations when assessing, collecting or curating – not the first. Does a talented teacher look for learning tools that they like, or do they seek the most appropriate resource for the individual student’s learning needs or style?

Paradoxically, curating still requires a passion for objects, but in equal measure it involves a thirst for knowledge, an understanding of how things are made and how things work, and a willingness to share this knowledge, passion and understanding with others. It requires the ability to undertake complex research, and an understanding of people. Curators need to be able to communicate complex concepts and ideas succinctly and engagingly to colleagues and clients (including artists and designers) then help find strategies which communicate these concepts and ideas innovatively and coherently to diverse audiences.

Curating is complex

In 2006, I developed an exhibition for the 2006 Sydney Design Festival titled “In your face: contemporary graphic design”. I didn’t necessarily go about choosing contemporary work that I loved, nor only the work of Australia’s leading design studios. Rather, I decided to be more discerning – decided to select works which exemplified where graphic design was at that moment – when the boundaries between art and design were blurring, boutique multi-disciplinary design studios were springing up all around the inner-city, animation and motion graphics were becoming increasingly prevalent, tattoos were for everyone, handmade retro type was being generated in response to the impersonal domination of standardized computer-generated fonts, lomography slipped into advertising campaigns, and websites and mobile devices were capturing the imagination of illustrators and designer toy makers.

Josh Roelink case study in the ‘In your face: contemporary graphic design’ exhibition, 2006. Photo: Kojdanovski, Marinco.

Josh Roelink case study in the ‘In your face: contemporary graphic design’ exhibition, 2006. Photo: Kojdanovski, Marinco.

This approach wasn’t necessarily explained in the exhibition, it was purely a part of the curatorial process. 16 case studies were selected – some of the more esoteric, like Reg Mombassa’s Aussie Jesus or Josh Roelink’s tattoo designs, almost rejected. I fought to retain them all. With curatorial projects, uneasy inveigling is sometimes required to rationalise prioritizing, meaning, significance and aesthetics. Eventually 16 case studies remained – short TVCs, supersized graphics, comics, 3 minute mobile phone animations and tattoos alongside logo design, typefaces, book design, poster design, brand identity and way-finding.

Guests in the ‘In your face: contemporary graphic design’ exhibition (Qube Construkt and Voice case studies), Sydney Design Festival launch, August 2006.

Guests in the ‘In your face: contemporary graphic design’ exhibition (Qube Construkt and Voice case studies), Sydney Design Festival launch, August 2006. Photo: Prudence Upton.

The show’s diverse and surprising content was well received by Museum audiences, especially students and culturally active young adults (some coming with older parents and grandparents). It was perhaps slightly less well received (but in no way totally rejected) by traditional graphic design practitioners who may have expected a celebration of past professional practice. This too may have been valid, but not necessarily the best, or only, fit for the Museum’s Sydney Design audience. Similar debates arose around the Love Lace exhibition a few years later when it pushed the boundaries of lacemaking in preference to making an assessment of traditional practice. Curating is complex and it often involves making difficult decisions.

Love to hear your thoughts on this topic, especially any misconceptions you have experienced around the role of the curator, or what you feel is the most significant attribute of a competent curator. Happy to answer questions.

Written by Anne-Marie Van de Ven, Curator, Design and Society

 

The Curious Case of Basil ‘DeCourcy’: Anzacs and the alias

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85/1286-1283 Photographic negative, studio portrait of Basil James Ryan (alias- Basil De Courcy) World War One, Gunner, 9 Field Artillery Brigade (Brigade Ammunition Column), glass / silver / gelatin, The Warren, Marrickville, Sydney, New South Wales, Apr

85/1286-1283 Photographic negative, studio portrait of Basil James Ryan (alias- Basil De Courcy) World War One, Gunner, 9 Field Artillery Brigade (Brigade Ammunition Column), glass / silver / gelatin, The Warren, Marrickville, Sydney, New South Wales, April 1916. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Discovering the identities of World War One soldiers from the Tyrrell Collection portraits has often been a difficult and tedious process. A contributing factor to this difficulty is the use of aliases by soldiers. According to military historian Neil Smith, the “incidence of aliases being used is frequently underestimated” within the AIF. The prevalence of aliases means that the real names of soldiers are “often difficult to establish”.
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World War One Soldier Portraits- a sense of being Australian, slouch hats and emu plumes

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Photographic negative, studio portrait of William Grant Green, World War One, Gunner, 9 Field Artillery Brigade (33rd Battery), glass / silver / gelatin, The Warren, Marrickville, Sydney, New South Wales, March-April 1916. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Photographic negative, studio portrait of William Grant Green, World War One, Gunner, 9 Field Artillery Brigade (33rd Battery), glass / silver / gelatin, The Warren, Marrickville, Sydney, New South Wales, March-April 1916. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

As we approach the centenary of World War One commemorative activities will be taking place across the world by all the countries involved in World War One. Australia’s responses will include exhibitions, publications and re-enactments of recruitment drives like the Coo-ee and Kangaroo marches in 1916 .

The Museum has been researching its collections linked to the war. We have discovered our very own ‘Lost Diggers’ collection, though on a smaller scale. A collection of 404 World War One soldier portraits are part of the Museum’s extensive Tyrrell Photographic Collection.
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Max Dupain and Chris Vandyke

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Max

Vandyke house at East Hills, 1948. Photo by Max Dupain. Powerhouse Museum collection, gift of Tony Vandyke.

You might have seen the story re the State Library of NSW’s recent acquisition of a photo album containing a different version of Max Dupain’s well-known 1937 ‘Sunbaker’ photo.

That Max disliked the widely published version doesn’t strike me as headline cultural news (well done to the State Library’s pr people tho). But the fact that the story was front page is confirmation of Max’s own annoyance that what has become a nostalgic salute to the old Australia of beaches and sunshine is more famous than his urban portfolio, the defining majority of Dupain’s output. The Library rubs it in somewhat by referring to the Sunbaker as ‘the holy grail of Australian photography’.
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Innovation, mining and bush regeneration

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Broken Hill before and after bush regeneration. Image  Albert Morris, hand coloured by Margaret  Morris 1938, Courtesy Broken Hill Regional Library and the Barrier Field Naturalists

Broken Hill Commons before and after bush regeneration. Image Albert Morris, hand coloured by Margaret Morris 1938, Image: courtesy the Barrier Field Naturalist Club and Broken Hill Regional Library

Broken Hill in the far west of NSW is not necessarily the first place you would think of as the beginning of bush regeneration. It is known more for its mining than its environmental history. However the earliest green action in Australia was inspired by Albert Morris and the Barrier Field Naturalists Club in Broken Hill. In 1936 its members enlisted the help of a mining company and through the process of native re-vegetation, defeated the drifts of sand that were swallowing the outskirts of this famous mining town.

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Picture this: A few of our photographs

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Pyrmont bridge

Pyrmont bridge, Tyrrell collection

At the Powerhouse Museum we are fortunate to have a great photographic collection including glass plate negatives from the late 19th and early 20th century in the Tyrell collection. They form a fairly solid base of our historic photography collections and provide the odd bit of excitement when we discover hitherto unknown works within them, like the 400 World War One soldier images recently uncovered.

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The Opera House industry

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MDAA

Photo by Max Dupain 1966, Powerhouse Museum collection. Courtesy Max Dupain & Associates.

We’ve just installed a small exhibition to mark the fortieth anniversary of Sydney Opera House on 20 October. The anniversary, by the way, is of the official 1973 opening by the Queen, not the first public performance there on the 28 September 1973, an interesting choice of dates.

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Selfies from the past, revealing but concealing

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Powerhouse Museum collection, object 93/178/4. Gift of Franz Lazi, 1993.

Powerhouse Museum collection, object 93/178/4. Gift of Franz Lazi, 1993.

Selfies are rampant today. We can see the phenomenon as harmless fun, as creative self-expression, or perhaps as a threat to civilisation, drowning us in egocentric banality. But of course people have long indulged in self-portraiture, and today I want to focus on an unusual pair of selfies that reveal one man in contrasting settings, telling us two stories about himself. This first image, created in 1947, portrays professional photographer Adolf Lazi as strong and calm, a connoisseur of Chinese sculpture and interested in books. He is playing to the camera without looking into the lens. Because he refuses to let us look into his eyes, the portrait is a little unsettling: while we see something about his relationship to the external world, we are not privileged with a glimpse of the inner Adolf.

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The Mr Taylor recovered glass plate negative

Doing jigsaws at work, recapturing an 1880s image

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The Mr Taylor recovered glass plate negative

The recaptured image from an all but destroyed glass plate negative

Most people don’t have the patience to attempt what our recent intern, Amir Mogadam from the Universtiy of Newcastle has just finished – probably one of the most challenging jigsaws you’re ever likely to see. But conservators are a patient if somewhat quirky mob. Amir worked with conservator Rebecca Main on a storage project to condition report, treat and rehouse a collection of large glass plate negatives (515 x 415mm) which were produced around 1870-1880 at the Freeman Brothers Studio, Sydney.
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