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Sue Ford @ MGA

Sue Ford SelfPortrait1969Thursday, 12 May 2011 

Sue Ford @ MGA

The exhibition of works by the late photographer Sue Ford spans a period of nearly forty years, and contains at a glance nearly 100 works by the artist, encompassing several periods, genres, and photographic streams within her oeuvre. The exhibition opens with a set of eight pairs of portraits taken by Sue of the same individuals (including herself), although several years and even decades apart. It is an interesting exercise, very much along the line of the Seven Up series. It is quite remarkable in the way it reflects the changes not only in fashions and aesthetics of the respective eras within which these photographs were taken, but also, very frequently, the changing personal and socio-political environment of her subjects.

The next section is solely devoted to an extensive display of Ford’s self-portraits. Ford pictures herself either alone, or with children and friends; at home, or within her studio environment. The photographs veer between artistic and documentary approaches, some of them no more than casual snapshots. It is an intriguing and intimate insight into her life, an illustrated biographical narrative that makes words virtually unnecessary. I was a bit perplexed to read the accompanying wall text, which basically posited that Ford’s interest in self-portraiture reflects the fact that she was a woman, wife, and mother; and as such, given her domestic commitments, was stuck for time and subjects, and therefore resorted to photographing herself.

SUE FORD SelfNot having known the photographer personally, I do not know whether the statement is true or false. However, when we consider this body of work against the background of current scholarship, which examined the genre of self-portraiture within psychological and psychoanalytical contexts, not to mention the stand-alone validity of the genre as profiled in numerous publications and exhibitions (including the recent one at the NGV), such simplistic dismissal of the intent behind Ford’s numerous self-portraits is baffling to say the least.

The wall text to the third section of the exhibition emphasises Sue Ford as the feminist photographer. I carefully looked at the images within this section, and came away baffled once again. The word ‘feminism’ emphasises a certain ideological, almost militant stance regarding gender inequality and women’s rights issues. As hard as I looked, I could not see an expression of feminist theories in her photographs. The women in her photographs enjoy shopping for dresses and nick-knacks; they expose their beautiful bodies; wear  fashionable clothes; and attend to their beauty routines; they raise children and grandchildren, and proudly display their pregnant bellies. I suggest that the curators confused the words feminist and feminine, for Sue Ford definitely focuses on femininity rather feminism.

Sue Ford hairdryerOf course, every exhibition, especially the one in a public gallery space, has to justify its curatorial choices. Unfortunately, in many cases, it seems that public galleries cannot leave the recognition of the importance of this or that artist or photographer to its visiting public, who might be able to make an informed judgement for themselves, based on the quality of the works on display. The point about the perceived importance has to be drilled with a verbal hammer-head. The MGA’s wall text boldly proclaims Sue Ford as “… one of Australia’s most important,… a leading feminist,… key role, … highly significant,… major legacy”, and so on and so forth.

Unfortunately, after such a bombastic marketing preamble, the exhibition falls rather short. I acknowledge the fact that it is the first important posthumous survey of Ford’s work (the photographer died in 2009), but it is by no means a block-buster type of exhibition, filled with iconic images. It eschews any of Ford’s colour photography; or anything completed within the last decade or so, when she produced a number of important bodies of work. The show is about quiet contemplation, an intimate dialogue between the photographer and the viewing public through the medium of her camera, rather than a challenging, ground-breaking, earth-moving experience, or a veritable call to arms for women’s rights the wall text would lead you to believe.

And this is what I have done in the end: stopped reading the marketing spin on the walls, and lost myself in Sue Ford’s silent images, the most magnificent of which to mind’s eye is Marlene at Cottes Bridge of 1964, a beautiful and soulful portrait of Clifton Pugh’s wife seated in profile in a chair in front of one of her husband’s (?) portraits. The image is beautifully composed. Marlene’s slim silhouette virtually blends with the darkened atmosphere of the picture. She is unaware of the camera, and faces away from the viewer. She is lost in contemplation of her thought, or perhaps of the featured portrait, the sinuous hands within which echo and interplay the outlines of her own limbs emerging from the darkened sweater.

[© Eugene Barilo von Reisberg 2011. This article is copyright, but full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgment]

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

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