Shane Baker | On the value of photographs (again)
Wind-blown grassesWind-blown grassesDry grass blowing in the wind near Canberra.

On the value of photographs (again)

January 03, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

I know I've written about this before (and probably will again), but we must never underestimate the value of our photographs.

Most people do - and I think this is why they don't preserve them.

It's long been my view that any photograph can have value, for any or all of the following reasons:

  • it's a great photograph - well exposed, composed, etc. Photographs by Ansel Adams or Josef Karsh are classic examples; or
  • it's a photograph made in time - of an event or thing that's no-longer there. This could be a news event, or an image of a landscape or cityscape; or
  • it's of value to you. Photographs of kids or a beloved relative fit this category.

And I must stress, an image can have one, two or even all three of these attributes. 
I recently spent a day in Sydney, and I went to two exhibitions featuring photographs. One was the exhibition of David Moore's photographs of the Sydney Opera House under construction.
Moore was a genuinely great photographer, who was able to turn his hand to pretty much any genre. And his work ticked at least two of those boxes above.

Sisters of Charity Washington
Sisters of Charity Washington

Moore was brilliant at what I would broadly describe as "industrial photography". He could find art in pretty uninspiring opportunities:
Sydney Opera House under construction 2
Sydney Opera House under construction 2

Yes, he had time and yes he had access - but the images he produced are wonderful.

Sydney Opera House steel reinforcing – c.1962
Sydney Opera House steel reinforcing – c.1962
These photographs are important for a number of reasons including that they are beautiful in their own right, they record the creation of one of the iconic buildings of the world, and because they record a moment in time. 

For instance: the exhibition has images of the men on the construction site balanced precariously on huge assemblies of steel and concrete as they're lifted into place. They're wearing hard hats, shorts and tee shirts - and some at least have safety boots. No doubt, at the time this was normal practice. However these days, I expect (and hope) that there would be a greater focus on safety!

And look what else is in the image: the 1962 Sydney skyline, a ship tied up at the passenger terminal, The Rocks - and the old ferry.

Important stuff - and worth recording!

The other exhibition is Suburban Noir at the Sydney Museum. This is a commentated slide show of forensic photography. Yup - photographs taken by the Police at various scenes covering theft, accidents, murder and suicide. And I was mesmerised!

No, it wasn't the gore (of which there wasn't much, by the way). Neither was it the photographs. They were workmanlike shots, but made for coroners and courts - not for exhibition.

The fascination was the recording of a place that's gone forever: Sydney in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

It's a place that's as exotic as any third world country today - and unlike Nepal or Amazonia, it's not on any airline's route map. It's gone forever - except in these images - and many others surviving in photo albums around Australia.

So - treat your photographs with respect. They are a repository of people, places, things and events that will one day be gone - except in your preserved images.

Have a happy and productive 2014.

Shane Baker

PS:  If you're still not convinced, invest 15 minutes to watch Kevin Gilbert's Ted Talk: The Lost Generation.





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