Exhibition: Sue Ford at the NGV, Melbourne

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NGV Ian Potter Centre Melbourne

17 April – 24 August 2014

In 1962, Sue Ford was one of only two women enrolled in the photography course at Melbourne’s RMIT. It was there the 19-year-old, intent on pursuing a career in the male-dominated medium, would have her first taste of the social and professional challenges that would ultimately shape her career. After being sexually harassed by a male lecturer, the promising student was forced to cut short her studies, quitting RMIT to set up a photographic studio in Melbourne.

“Sue was one of the first female photographers to establish herself as an independent practitioner and from the beginning she saw herself as a photographic artist, not a commercial photographer,” says Maggie Finch, curator at the National Gallery of Victoria. “She was quite defiant about that.”

Ford, who died in 2009, went on to become one of the country’s best-known photographers, recognised for her self-portraiture and her black and white work.

From next week, the National Gallery of Victoria will hold the first major retrospective of Ford’s work, in an exhibition spanning her decades-long career and featuring some 200 photographs as well as film and video installation.

“In a way I think her feminist working method developed almost out of necessity,” says Finch of Ford, who in 1974 was the first photographer to hold a solo exhibition at the NGV. “Her early works were very collaborative. There is a real sense of camaraderie and the consensual nature of the images. The way Sue worked created such a different dynamic to the more formal work of the male photographers who were often working with professional models to a very particular aesthetic.”

After leaving RMIT, Ford opened a studio in Little Collins Street with friend Annette Stephens. The studio was above a cafe whose owner, according to Finch, was convinced it was a front for a brothel. Ford grew tired of the landlord’s tirade each time a man walked up the stairwell and so she began photographing her female friends, before deciding to turn the camera on herself.

The collaborative approach that evolved in the early years of her practice became a hallmark. As more women came on to the photography scene Ford shared her knowledge and experiences. “Sue was incredibly generous and very inclusive,” says close friend Bonita Ely, associate professor of fine arts at Sydney’s University of NSW.

But it was experimentation that really defined Ford’s philosophy and she embraced new technologies in order to push creative boundaries. Her camera, she claimed, was an extension of her being, always within reach. Another of Ford’s inner circle, Helen Ennis, professor at Australian National University’s school of art, says Ford is crucial to the history of Australian photography.

“Sue is one of those figures who really began to put art photography on the map,” she says.

In the early 1970s Ford received a scholarship to study at the Victorian College of the Arts where she learned to focus less on technique and more on the image itself. Photographer Ruth Maddison says it is this shift in Ford’s work that influenced her own aesthetic. “Her approach was ‘I don’t care if the print is scratched or if there’s dust on it, it is all about the image’. She was validating the fact that sometimes you love the image, but the print might not be fab … that allowed me to relax”.

Ford was one of the earliest photographers to embrace multimedia, using darkroom techniques to create films such as 1972 short Woman in a House, which features multiple negatives, multiple exposures and mirroring to tell the story of a young married woman who is desperately trying to escape her situation. It was another example of self-reflection. At the time Ford was recently separated.

Political and environmental issues also influenced her choices through works such as 1969’s Bush Performance Montage, featuring a male friend wearing a gas mask, and anti-war piece Vietnam the Six O’Clock News.

But it is Ford’s 1974 Time Series — a work featuring two black and white portraits of the same person taken 10 years apart, hung side by side — that is considered one of the groundbreaking moments in Australian photography.

In her artist’s statement for the Time Series Ford said, “In Time Series I tried to use the camera as objectively as possible … the camera showed me with absolute clarity, something I could only just perceive with my naked eye.”

Melbourne photographer Ponch Hawkes, among others, cites it as a source of inspiration.

“I think Sue introduced the notion of ‘the series’ in Australia. You can see it in American photography, but no one was doing that here … that really changed things. Suddenly the subject matter of our own lives was appropriate for photography.”

Ford worked until her death, aged 66.

“She never stopped thinking about her practice,” says Ennis. “She was a creative, open and inspiring person. I feel very lucky to have known her.”

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