Sue Ford: A life on film

SFord Self portrait 2004

Review: Sue Ford Retrospective
National Gallery of Victoria
until 24 August 2014

Ben Ford has a lasting memory of visiting his mother’s Balaclava home in her later years. Whether he was there for a Sunday lunch, a weekday dinner or a pop-in out of the blue, Sue Ford would invariably set him a task.
“Every time I’d go over there, she’d get me to move all the art in the house and change it all around,” he recalls with a laugh. “Or she’d get me to rearrange her entire house – put her lounge room in her studio and her studio in her lounge room, or put her bedroom out the back.”

His mother’s domestic whims were not without context. Widely considered one of the ground-breaking photographers to emerge from the 1970s feminist movement – alongside Ponch Hawkes, Micky Allan, Virginia Coventry and others – her life was one of relentless exploration, observation and record. Even if anchored in the one place, her outlook was forever changing.
“She was a very restless person and was always needing to change her environment so she could see everything differently,” Ben Ford says. “It was almost as if she was looking out a car window her entire life, just watching everything flash past.”

It is a quality that comes to the fore in Sue Ford, a retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria tracing the artist’s practice across various forms of photography, film and even painting from the early 1960s until her death from cancer in 2009. Drawing on seemingly simple means and subject matter, Ford’s portraits, social documentary photographs and more experimental works – which saw her layer multiple negatives to psychedelic and surrealist effect – offered a new vantage on Australia during a time of great socio-cultural and political change. Ford, who in 1974 became the first photographer to be granted a solo exhibition at the NGV, eschewed ideas of technical virtuosity or the essential image to instead find resonance in accrual and change.

“It was always about the image and the content of that image, rather than the pristine, perfect print,” says curator Maggie Finch. “She was really important to a lot of 1970s feminist photographers in terms of freeing up what you could photograph. A lot of her friends from that era have said that she really liberated photography for them because a lot of the women didn’t have the interest in mastering the technical excellence that a lot of the men were focused on.

“She turned to things that people weren’t otherwise looking at, like the self, family, friends and all these undervalued areas.”

Her obsession with photography started early. Raised in and around St Kilda, she was given a camera at 17 to take on a trip to Europe and was thrilled by the experience of recording the foreign landscape. On returning to Melbourne, she worked as a delivery girl at the Sutcliffe Photographers studio, began a studio of her own on Collins Street with fellow artist Annette Stephens, and enrolled in a photography course at RMIT in 1962 (as one of only two females students in a class of 30).

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