Self-portrait with camera 1960-2006 (2011)

Book essay

'Faces are Maps': Sue Ford and Portraiture

by Helen Ennis ©

Published by Monash Gallery of Art 2011

When Sue Ford became interested in photography as a teenager in the late 1950s the

photography scene was very different to the one we now take for granted. Professional

and commercial photographers were extremely active, 1 but there was no separate

category of art photographer as there has been since the early 1970s. Those interested

in using the medium as a means of self expression were invariably professionally trained

and made their living in the fields of advertising, fashion, architecture and industry, or

in science and medicine. The most ubiquitous area of practice across Australia was

portraiture, carried out in city, suburban and country studios that were often also

involved in wedding photography, another lucrative area of activity.

These simple historical facts are what make Sue Ford’s practice, begun in 1961,

the more remarkable. Though it was largely invisible at the time of its production


photography from the 1960s occupies a crucial place in Australian photographic

history, coming immediately before the explosion of the art photography movement

in Australia. In the decades that followed she produced a wide-ranging, complex

body of work which contributes to important debates about gender and race, about

the politics of history and representation, about feminism and post-colonialism.

And yet, as her extensive archives reveal, there is one area of practice that

remained constant across nearly fifty years – portraiture.

The beginnings of Ford’s career were relatively conventional. She worked as a

delivery girl for Sutcliffe Photographers in Collins Street, Melbourne in 1960 and

was responsible for delivering photographs to advertising agencies in the city.

However, she found herself seduced by the ‘magic’ of the processes she

witnessed in Sutcliffe’s darkroom during her lunch hour. The following year, aged

eighteen, she enrolled in a vocational photography course at Royal Melbourne

Institute of Technology and completed the first of a four-year course (art

photography courses were not introduced to tertiary institutions until several years

later). At this time she made some well resolved but standard documentary images

that were suffused with the humanist and universalisingspirit encapsulated in The family of man

exhibition which toured Australia in 1959. However, very quickly she struck off on her own path. In 1961–62, in a studio above Ninky’s

Tea and Coffee house in Little Collins Street which she shared with a fellow student, Annette Stevens, Ford began to make her first

important works. These were portraits of her female school friends. All the hallmarks of her mature practice appear in these charming

images: a collaborative approach, the preference for ‘a set formula’ (Ford likened it to a cake recipe)2 and a pared-down visual

vocabulary. As she later explained, the camera was set on 1/60th of a second at F11 and one of four backdrops was used, either a white

or black sheet, a bamboo stand or a hessian curtain.3 This systematic approach became her modus operandi, serving her extremely well

in the Time series of photographs and in the films Faces and Faces 1976–1996 (with Ben Ford).

Ford’s portraits from the 1960s did not make their public appearance until the

early 1980s when they were exhibited in Photo-book of women (1982) and

published inA sixtieth of a second: portraits of women 1961–1981 (1987). The

response to them was therefore delayed and already historicised. Within the

context of Ford’s oeuvre and subsequent historical events, the photographs can

be seen to carry substantial weight as portents of great social and political

change. From the outset Ford’s practice was firmly anchored in the lives of

women and their shared desire for liberation from a patriarchal society and

confining, stereotypical roles. The consensual approach she developed and the

kind of photographic imagery she produced make it clear that in developing

independent, autonomous lives the company and support of other women was

crucial. Not only were the women friends, they were artistic partners and

collaborators as well. Their actions ranged from playing up for the camera – as in

Carmel and Trish’s faux fashion photographs (1962) – to real world initiatives that

included the establishment of the film-making collective Reel Women in 1980.

The collective, of which Ford was a founding member, aimed to expand women’s

access to film making.

The sixties portraits do not, however, relate only to history. Their continuing

appeal derives from their freshness and vitality, and the youthful charm of their

smooth-skinned subjects, with their sometimes earnest expressions. Ford later

recalled that her sitters approached being photographed with ‘a ceremonial

seriousness’ as they changed their clothes and hairstyles for their sessions. 4

The degree of formal experimentation in Ford’s early photography is also striking. It is evident in her choice of unusual vantage points,

unexpected framing and – especially in the portraits – the favouring of extreme close-ups that strip away contextual elements. This

experimentation was allied to her politicised and iconoclastic view of the technical aspects of photography. As a woman and single

mother raising two children, Emma and Ben, Ford was acutely aware of the political, gendered economy of photography.5 She drew

attention to the economic difficulties involved in accessing good photographic equipment, well equipped studio and darkroom facilities,

as well as the inequities associated with childcare and securing extended periods of solitude and uninterrupted time to work. In 1980 she

remarked that ‘women generally have to make film-making fit into their life, not their life fit into a career of film-making, which is generally

the case with men’.6 Ford did not regard technical accomplishment as a measure of success and produced prints that, in her words,

were often ‘rough as guts’,7 purposefully aligning her work with a conceptualist wing of practice rather than fine art photography


In the 1970s Ford made two revealing statements about her views on

photography. The first was in 1973, when she was awarded an Ilford

Scholarship to study photography at the Victorian College of the Arts.

She outlined what was then a radical conception of photography as a

plastic medium, explaining that she planned to experiment: with

emulsions, colour, photographic silkscreen and photo-sculpture …

some artists some of their techniques and materials to extend

photography into other dimensions. 8

A year later in New photography Australia: a selective survey,

published by the newly founded Australian Centre for Photography,

Ford stated that she was exploring the camera’s ‘unique capacity to

simply RECORD’.9 These dual interests – in photography’s ability to

record and its plastic possibilities – were the touchstones in her

practice, surfacing and resurfacing at different points throughout her career. Series from the 1990s onwards, such as From Van Diemens

Land to Video Land, used hand-colouring, collage and laser prints. But it was in her portraiture, above all in the Time series and extended

self-portraiture, that Ford used photography’s recording capacity to greatest effect.

Time series, Ford’s best-known work, met with critical acclaim when first exhibited; Geoffrey De Groen, for example, described the

photographs as ‘brilliant’.10 The series presents two, sometimes three, images of the same subject taken from seven to ten years apart.

Each person stares into the camera, subjecting themselves to intense but detached scrutiny. There is no pretence, no romantic and

atmospheric effects. The film Faces follows the same formula. Subjects drawn from Ford’s own circle pose in front of a neutral

backdrop, each faces the camera for a sometimes excruciating thirty second period. The concerns with time and change which underpin

Time series and Faces are in Ford’s self-portraits too and can be seen in the series of 47 photographs that make up Self portrait with

camera (1960–2006). But her autobiographical project, particularly in the early years, also had a political dimension – feminism and the

desire to create new, positive images of women that challenged the stereotypes of ‘glossy, brainless beauty, slim, attractive bodies,

flawless complexions and eternally smiling mouths’.11 Choosing to photograph oneself, one’s life and one’s time exemplified the now

well-worn slogan ‘the personal is political'.Fords self examination across the decades is unflinching and exacting. As Janine Burke wrote

in 1980, her 'ppsychological history [is] etched in her for everyone to see’. Burke concluded that Ford’s self-portraits are ‘as honest as

one can ever be about oneself’.12

For Sue Ford portraits, or ‘faces’, were an enduring interest. After all, as she remarked in 1978, ‘Everybody’s face tells you about the

society they live in, and what they’re feeling inside … faces are maps’.13