Photography: Real & Imagined – 200 years of visual journey

Man Ray Kiki with African mask 1926. © MAN RAY TRUST / ADAGP,Paris. Licensed by CopyrightAgency, AustraliaPhoto:Helen Oliver-Skuse/NGV.

MELBOURNE, 25 July 2023: Since the advent of photography, the medium has been moving ahead with leaps and bounds. While cameras continue, the mobile phone revolution has mad anyone with it a photographer. The latest iphones and similar devices with advanced camera features have been giving excellent results. Having a few thousand photos one someone’s mobile phone is no big deal. Still, photography’s current stage has a long history. The current technological advance is unparraled with fascinating outcomes.

Some of these outcomes form part of the National Gallery of Victoria’s upcoming Photography: Real & Imagined  exhibition – the largest survey of the NGV’s photography collection in the institution’s history and features more than 270 photographs by Australian and international practitioners. 

Four years in the making, this landmark exhibition features photographs from across the 200-year period since the invention of photography in the 19th century, including work by leading international photographers including Man Ray, Cindy Sherman, Wolfgang Tillmans, Gilbert & George and Nan Goldin, alongside Australian photographers Max Dupain, Olive Cotton, Mervyn Bishop, Polly Borland, Destiny Deacon and Darren Sylvester. 

 Through twenty-one thematic sections, this large-scale exhibition explores the proposition that a photograph can be grounded in the real world, recording, documenting and reflecting the world around us; or be the product of imagination, storytelling and illusion; and on occasion operate in both realms. The thematic sections explore subject matter such as light, place and environment, consumption, conflict, community, and death. 

Malala Andrialavidrazana Figures 1850, various empires, kingdoms, states and republics 2015. © Malala Andrialavidrazana.Courtesy of the artist andAFRONOVA GalleryPhoto: Christian Markel/ NGV.

Exhibition highlights include Mervyn Bishop’s important photograph of former Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam, pouring sand into the open palm of Gurindji Elder Vincent Lingiari. The 1975 image captures the historic meeting between these two figures where Lingiari received the crown lease of his ancestral lands. 


Also on display is Joe Rosenthal’s World War II photograph Raising the flag on Iwo Jima, 1945, in which American marines raise their country’s flag over the Japanese Island. Both Bishop and Rosenthal’s photographs were staged, or re-constructed for better pictorial effect, illustrating the fluid space between the real and imagined. 

 The exhibition also presents fashion and advertising photography, including key examples by Lilian Bassman, Athol Smith, Horst P. Horst and Dora Maar. These images showcase a world of designer fashion and high-end products, which set a standard in advertising that continues today. Ilse Bing’s Surrealist inspired photograph commissioned by Elsa Schiaparelli to launch her new perfume Salut in 1934 is a highlight of the exhibition. 

 Highlighting an area of focused collecting for the NGV, the exhibition recognises the work of women practicing in the early 20th century, including Barbara Morgan whose acclaimed photo montage City shell, 1938, shows an unexpected view of the then recently completed Empire State Building. 

 Through to the current day, Photography: Real & Imagined presents contemporary photographers of the 21st century including Zanele Muholi, Richard Mosse and Alex Prager. Highlights include Cindy Sherman’s celebrated self-portrait in the guise of Renaissance aristocrat. 

Dora Maar Untitled (Study of Beauty) 1936 gelatin silver photograph. © Estate of Dora Maar / DACS,All Rights Reserved / CopyrightAgency, AustraliaPhoto: Predrag Cancar/ NGV.

Also on display will be the oldest photographic work in the NGV Collection, an early 19th century portrait by Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the inventors of the medium, as well as examples of daguerreotypes, unique images on silver plated copper sheets that are amongst the earliest forms of photography. 

The exhibition is accompanied by a major publication – the most ambitious book published on the NGV Photography Collection, generously supported by the Bowness Family Foundation. The publication comprises essays from NGV Senior Curator of Photography, Susan van Wyk, Susan Bright and David Campany; alongside texts by Curator of Photography, Maggie Finch and external authors from Australia, Europe, North America and Southeast Asia.  

Regular introductory talks for students are held on weekdays during term times, and free drop-by guided tours each Thursday and Sunday at 10.30am during the exhibition period. 

Tony Ellwood AM, Director, NGV, said: ‘This exhibition celebrates the collections and achievements of the NGV’s photography department, which has presented more than 180 exhibitions in its 55-year history. The exhibition is a testament to the strength of the NGV Collection, with so many key examples of the history of photography represented, from the earliest examples from the 19th century, through to contemporary images being produced right now in the twenty-first century. We are grateful for the support of the many donors and philanthropists, such as the Bowness Family Foundation, who have helped to grow and strengthen the NGV’s photography collection.’

Photography: Real & Imagined is on display from 13 October – 4 February 2024 at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Fed Square, Melbourne. Entry is free. More information is available at the NGV website: NGV.MELBOURNE    

By Neeraj Nanda

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