Photo Files ed Blair French

edited by Blair French Sydney: Power Publications and Australian Centre for Photography, 1999 paperback, 315pp b&w illustrations

Photo Files collects a selection of essays from Photofile , the journal published by the Australian Centre for Photography from 1983. It is indispensable. There are no comparable compendiums on Australian photography.
There are many foreign photography readers in print, the great majority drawing their material from multiple sources. Photo Files reflects the limitations of a single origin. Quick-reaction exhibition or book reviews take their place alongside relatively few pieces of a more philosophical character. Some of the authors included have written to more significant effect elsewhere, including Edward Colless, Ross Gibson, Gael Newton (a key curatorial player who scrapes in with a preface), and Clare Williamson (eg. in Blakness [1994], with Hetti Perkins, a catalogue which lived up to its own claims). A roll-call of perceptive writers not included at all comes readily to mind: Alexander, George; Annear, Judy; Coventry, Virginia; Crombie, Isobel; Foss, Paul; Koop, Stuart... Sources abound for further compendiums in journals like W.O.P.O.P., Art & Text, On the Beach, Tension and Art Network, or in catalogues produced by art spaces and museums.
Photofile nevertheless possesses a singular importance. Its sixteen year history makes it the longest lasting magazine on serious photography in Australia to emerge over the last three decades. Its contents came to reflect the high energy 1980s trend to 'Theory' in a way unimagined by the originators of earlier magazines (eg. Light Vision , 1977-78), or the founders of the Australian Centre for Photography. The bulk of the articles selected date from the latter phases of the journal's history, with a total of 24 of the Photo File's 33 essays dating from the 1990s, with nothing earlier than 1985.
Photofile readily attracted a number of the best writers on any art media in Australia (eg. Edward Colless, Adrian Martin) as well as a host of the less inspired. Only a handful of the essays approximate the ideal of being either penetrating theoretically and well written. To the authors just named one might add Ross Gibson, Geoffrey Batchen and Bruce James. There are also some gems from what were relatively unexpected sources, eg. Roslyn Poignant, Anne Ooms, Anne Ferran, as well as variously telling pieces by reliable photo observers like Martyn Jolly and Helen Ennis. Much of the rest – about half the material in the first, third and fourth sections – is either predictable in style and content, or deals, in the second and fifth sections especially, with artwork of minor quality in ways more ingenious than convincing.
The theoretical 'turn' is also reflected in Blair French's introductory essay, which, in dealing with issues more than history, inevitably partakes of the relevant period rather than establishing a critical distance. Explaining and reflecting the book's organisation, it touches many bases of current interest and relevance, including new technologies and the photography of Indigenous artists. A further introductory essay might usefully have traced Photofile 's profile in relation to its editors, to the Australian Centre for Photography, and above all to its shifting constituencies. The journal spurted into rambunctious life as a broadsheet. A smaller format under Geoffrey Batchen's editorship (1985 – 86) signalled a tighter intellectual grip, a period matched by Photofile's present day critical generosity under Bruce James (from 1997). The magazine in between times crash-dived more often than a Collins-class submarine, as an astonishing range of editors valiantly attempted to keep it operational. High publishing drama, but you would not know it from Photo Files, the book.
Photo Files well reflects the intellectual concerns and existential anxieties of the post-photography boom period of the later 1980s and the 1990s. Like all cultural artefacts, but to a marked degree, Photo Files also possesses the merits of being a period piece in itself, revealing inadvertently as much as consciously recent preoccupations of the Australian art world.