Issue no. 45 / May 2021
Mervyn Bishop: Prime Minister Gough Whitlam pours soil into the hands of Traditional Custodian, Vincent Lingiari, Northern Territory 1975, type R3 photograph 30.5 x 30.5 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales Hallmark Cards Australian Photography Collection Fund 1991 © Mervyn Bishop/ Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet; Photo: AGNSW
SNAPPING BLACK In 1986, the first Indigenous photography exhibition was held at the Aboriginal Artists Gallery in Kent Street, Sydney. In 2021, the National Film and Sound Archive is hosting a major exhibition of works by a photographer considered to be the ‘father’ of First Nations photography in Australia. Reconciliation News notes the generous contribution of Brenda L Croft, Associate Professor, Indigenous Art History and Curatorship, ANU, to this story. The September 1986 NAIDOC Week Aboriginal and Islander Photographers was a landmark exhibition. Showing the work of First Nations artists—established and emerging— it included a number whose careers later soared, nationally and internationally, and others for whom it was one of the few times their work was publicly exhibited. The gallery no longer exists but the work of those photographers continues to frame the space of First Nations photography in Australia today.
Michael Riley, Brenda L. Croft, Tracey Moffatt, Mervyn Bishop, along with Darren Kemp, Tony Davis, Chris Robinson and Ros Sultan were the photographers featured in that 1986 exhibition. Their work is recognised in the canon of Australian photography beside that of Frank Hurley, Olive Cotton, Max Dupain and Rennie Ellis. From the early 1980s onwards, individual First Nations photographers, including Brook Andrew, Richard Bell, Gordon Bennett, Destiny Deacon, Fiona Foley, Dianne Jones, Ricky Maynard, Tracey Moffatt, Michael Riley, Christian Thompson and many others gained increasing recognition for their work.
These and other photographers worked to overcome memories of generations and centuries of indelible mistreatment, and the mistrust and hatred held by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and people of colour, towards that most abusive of colonial weapons: a camera—being both object and subject of interpretation by non-Indigenous outsiders. First Nations photographic practice developed both as a medium for political articulation and as a response to colonial white imaging and appropriation. This has been articulated through a wide range of photographic styles and approaches from documentary and portraiture to conceptual work.