Sue Ford: A survey 1960-1995 (1995)

Monash University Gallery

Catalogue essay


by Helen Ennis ©

For some time now Sue Ford has had an idea for a new film. It would be called Knitting and

would be made by running together some the 16mm film stock she has shot over the years.

The desire to make a film like this is perfectly in keeping with Ford 's art practice. The key

components of which can be seen in this exhibition, the first to survey her extensive career.

If Knitting were to be made it would, like so many of Ford's other works, collapse the

distinction between past and present.  For Ford, the past is not over. Rather, it continues to

exert an active presence, as part a continuum. Particular images and formal structures recur in

works made many years apart. The intricately patterned surfaces of The Tide Recedes for example, reappear twenty years later in the

laser prints, while the fern fronds in the photograms in the mid-I980s have a pivotal role in the Shadow Portraits of the early 1990s. By

the same logic, Sue Ford does not regard the arrangements of the laser prints as final; they can be re-configured in any number of ways

depending on her changing perspective or the installation space available.

Ford's engagement with the past is bound up with her interest in time and, more specifically, change. She has rarely produced single

photographic images. Instead, she favours a fluid, filmic way of working, grouping individual images in pairs, sequences or extended

series. In Growth, My Faces and the Time Series the minutiae of physical change are compellingly evident in faces photographed over

time. The faces function as ciphers of change itself - change as a process of becoming, of metamorphosis.

As Sue Ford's idea for her film Knitting indicates, her approach to art making has always been straightforward, irreligiously and

deliberately so. She does not cultivate a mysterious artistic persona and there is no mystique attached to her selection of raw material or

her use of a particular medium. Ford's art practice is purposeful; it is the outcome of her view of art as a political activity that is

democratic, liberating and relevant to contemporary society.

From the outset Ford's work has been self-consciously contemporary. It grows out of her experiences of 'here' and 'now', drawing its

energy from an engagement with life. For Sue Ford, being an artist has never simply meant the creation of art works. In the spirit of do-it-

yourself feminism, and practical rather than institutional action, she has been committed to creating new structures for the production of

art, its dissemination and display. Strategies developed include working collectively (as a member of Reel Women), and skill sharing

(with the Tiwi women on Bathurst Island). Ford has also worked as a freelance photographer specializing in child portraiture, a

cinematographer and a teacher.

As well as identifying some of the major threads running through Sue Ford's career this exhibition aims to make two other points, both of

which relate to different forms of categorisation. The first concerns media. Though best known as a photographer, Ford has worked in

film and video; she has also made drawings, paintings and three children's photo-books. Her choice of a particular medium has always

been pragmatic, depending on the ideas being explored and the outcome desired.

The second - a matter of chronology - is ultimately more important. Sue Ford has generally been seen as a seventies photographer, part

of the now much valued wave of feminist photography which included Micky Allan, Virginia Coventry, Ponch Hawkes, Ruth Maddison

and other practitioners. 2 However, her photographic career actually began much earlier, at a time when few women were involved in

photography either professionally or as artists.

As a teenager Sue Ford (nee Winslow) used the family's camera to photograph her "friends, hanging around at lunchtime, at the beach";

photography "was a form of celebration of an event, place or person".3 She  took the camera with her when, at the age of seventeen,

she travelled overseas with her mother (unfortunately, only a few of the photographs turned out). Home again, and with no desire to

return to school, she was faced with the problem of employment. In 1960 she took a job as a delivery girl for Sutcliffe Photographers in

Collins Street, Melbourne, delivering photographs to advertising agencies. Most of her lunchtimes were spent in the darkroom, a "dark

and mysterious Aladdin's cave" where photographic images appeared like magic. 4

These experiences led to her enrolment in 1961 in a four year photography course at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the only

option then available to those seeking a vocational training. It was not until the late 1960s that art photography courses began to be

introduced into Australian tertiary educational institutions; Prahran College of Advanced Education, for example, set up its course in

1968. After one year of study Ford left RMIT and worked in a different successions of jobs that included a stint as a darkroom worker, a

child portraitist, and an assistant at Eltham films processing stills and helping with continuity.

It was in the early 1960s that Sue Ford produced her first body of work: photographic portraits of women. The majority were taken in the

studio above Ninky’s café in Little Collins Street which she shared with Annette Stevens, the only other female student at RMIT. Here

largely with the help of old school friends who posed as models, Ford taught herself the basics of portraiture. She followed a set formula

“in the same way you would follow a cake recipe”: the camera was set on 1/60th of a second at f11 and one of four backdrops was used

(a white sheet, a black sheet, a bamboo stand or the hessian curtain sewn by Annette Stevens's mother and used to divide the studio).5

These photographs had no currency until the 1980s when they were printed in a concerted effort that lasted nearly a year, exhibited in

the Photo-book of Women and published in A Sixtieth of a Second.6 Nevertheless, they can be seen as the beginning of Sue Ford's

social exploration through photography - a searching for appropriate images of women by women. Also significant is the collaboration

between Ford and her subjects which pre-dated the non-exploitative strategies developed by feminist photographers a decade later.

Ford's friends were active participants in the photographic exchange, cultivating different looks and masquerading as fashion models and

film stars.

In the late 1960s, when her two children Emma and Ben were no longer babies, Ford resumed her art practice. She experimented with

collage, combining different photographic images of contemporary events, such as the moon-landing and the Vietnam war. The collage

made in response to the atrocities occurring in Vietnam is particularly potent, still charged with anger.

During this period she produced two series of highly manipulated photographic works; they were shown at Hawthorn City Art Gallery in

1971 in her first one-person exhibition. The Suburban series comprised bleak images of suburbia and alienated individuals. The Tide

Recedes related “to the life cycle, sea life and human life ... [They] were mostly superimposed images of nude figures with rock, water,

seaweed, kelp and sand. The figures started out being recognisably human and finally metamorphosed into a sea animal”.7 Ford stated

at the time that she was concerned that, “people are getting too far away from nature, so ... I've tried to show human beings integrated

into nature”.8

The large scale of the prints in The Tide Recedes indicated that they were conceived as art objects. In recognition of the fact, The Age

headlined its review "Photography as an art form" and noted that some photographers were moving away from technical preoccupations

to "artistic achievement". Ford was lauded as one of this new breed of creative photographers who used the medium as "a means of


In her film Woman in a House, 1972, Ford took the exhibition's themes further, focusing on a woman and the experiences directly

affecting her. Isolated in suburbia, the young female subject is overwhelmed by feelings of desolation and unable to leave the house.

The only conversation that occurs is a dysfunctional and devastating exchange on talk-back radio between a female caller and a male


One of the earliest feminist films made in Australia, Woman in a House

was shot on a low-budget grant from the Australian Film Institute. It

demonstrates Ford's pragmatic and open-minded approach to different

media. With no formal training in film she learnt the basics as she went,

with the help of John Phillips and other friends like Nigel Buesst.

In 1973 Sue Ford was awarded the first Ilford Scholarship to study

photography for two years at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School.

She welcomed the opportunity to relate photography to the other arts,

particularly appropriate given her radical conception of photography as a

plastic medium.

She intended to experiment, with emulsions, colour, photographic silkscreen and photo-sculpture some artists are utilising

phototechniques and are thinking in a photographic way. I want to use some other techniques and materials to extend photography into

other dimensions.10

While at the Art School, Ford exhibited the Time Series which met with critical acclaim.11 She also made a series of large screenprints

of faces using the facilities set up by Bea Maddock, the lecturer in Printmaking.12

By the mid 1970S Sue Ford's central concerns were clearly articulated, in part through her involvement in the women's art movement.

She was one of a small group of women that met informally and visited each other's studios; this arrangement made it possible to

exchange ideas and provide mutual support. 13 She exhibited with other feminist artists, and was represented in feminist publications

including Lip.

Much has been written about the momentum released by the women's art movement, the unity among women and, "even among the

more utopian, the dream of feminist revolution”.14 Sometimes the involvement resulted in the development of common strategies

worldwide. French artist Annette Messager recently observed that: many women in the 1970s chose to represent themselves in the 'first

person singular' in order to correct the generalised representations made of them by men. Much of this art took a direct, diaristic,

confessional or autobiographical approach.15

Indeed, Ford was one of those Australian women artists who incorporated elements of her life in her art work. She invariably

photographed her friends and herself, often using first names as a form of identification. But her practice is not a form of self-confession;

there is nothing self-indulgent or sentimental about it.

The formal coherence of Ford's work from the mid-1970s stems from a concentration on photography's unique qualities as opposed to

those of other mediums. Her exploration of the camera's "unique capacity to simply record”16 resulted in the Time Series, Growth and

the film Faces, all of which are documents of one kind or another. The production of the images followed a set formula: movement within

a frame. The Time Series deals with the passage of time and ageing, Growth with the growth of a beard, and Faces with expressions.

The relative formality of the procedures - each subject faced the camera front-on, without any props or accessories – is countered by the

low-tech appearance of the film and of the photographic prints.

These investigations into the camera's ability "to simply record” were not connected to a purist notion of photography. Ford has always

moved freely between straight and manipulative uses of the medium and has never regarded either the negative or print as sacred. Many

of the photographs in the series Boyfriends and My Faces, also produced in the mid-1970S, were taken by other people, re-photographed

by Ford, and printed in a standard format. The print quality appears rough to those committed to the traditions of the fine print.

Sue Ford's photographic work from this period also ruffles the boundaries between public and private. From the private sphere comes a

process of personal interaction and references to family photograph albums and snapshots. However, unlike their snapshot counterparts,

the significance of Ford's photographs is not contingent on knowledge of the participants. My Faces, for instance, plots not only Sue

Ford's "psychological history”17, but that of a whole generation. Across the photographs of Ford's own face one sees change functioning

in physical, personal and more general social terms.

In the late 1970s Sue Ford moved to Sydney from the Victorian bush where she had lived for nearly fifteen years. There, she directed

her energies towards filmmaking; she worked with Paul Reed on various film projects and was a member of the Sydney Film-makers Co-

operative. In 1978 she completed Time Changes, "a documentary about time and change, focusing on four men who were filmmakers

and close friends".18 Her filmmaking style was typically unprecious; the film had no script, and interwove her own diary footage with

excerpts from some of the participants' own films. She later described it as being "made by almost everybody who appeared in it and

edited by general consensus".19

On her return to Melbourne, Ford became involved with Reel Women, a collective of filmmakers committed to expanding women's

access to film. From her perspective as a solo parent she observed in 1980 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. This is the most important element in my film making ... I don't sit down with a blank piece of paper and think 'What can I make a

film about'? It is more as though the film has lived inside me for years and eventually I become obsessive enough about the feeling or

idea to want to put it down on film.20

The members of Reel Women assisted each other in their film-making projects, often working collaboratively. They arranged the

distribution of their own films, organised late night screenings at the Longford Cinema, imported international feminist films, ran film-

making workshops, showed films to women in suburban areas and to school groups. With a grant from the Australian Film Commission

they opened an office in Faraday Street, Carlton and developed editing facilities for those who would otherwise not have access to such


Ford's public art activities were brought to a temporary halt in late 1982 as a result of a horse riding accident. While recovering, she drew,

painted and experimented with photograms and collages. By the late 1980s she had initiated a number of new projects, ushering in an

extremely productive period that has continued unabated. The award of a grant from the Victorian Ministry of the Arts in 1987 and from

the Visual Arts and Craft Board of the Australia Council in 1991 enabled her to devote herself to her work.

Series produced during the last seven years – A Different Landscape, from Van Diemens Land to Video Land, Shadow Portraits and The

Wonder Book of Empire - have a common focus. They all explore issues related to 'white cultural history and identity' which were brought

to the surface in 1988 with the 'celebration' of the bicentenary of white Australian settlement. Consistent with her previous practice, Sue

Ford's investigation of these issues is based on first-hand experience rather than academic research. In mid-1988 she spent time on

Bathurst Island working with Tiwi women. With them she experienced the Australian landscape in a totally new way. During the hunting

and bush education trips that the women took me on, the landscape became alive with their history and meaning.21

It was also in 1988 that she attended the Barunga Festival, an annual gathering of aboriginal people held on the Queen's birthday

weekend in June. She made a record of the proceedings which included a meeting between then Prime Minister Bob Hawke and senior

Aboriginal law men; at the end of the day Hawke gave his government's commitment to negotiating a Treaty with the Aboriginal people.

The realism of the photographs taken at Barunga that day is all-important, ensuring their status as 'accurate' records of contemporary

Australian history.

Ford's personal responses to issues associated with the Bicentenary were explored further in the paintings And God was Happy to Have

a New Country 1990-92 and Re-enactments at St Kilda Beach 1991.

In the late 1980s Ford discovered laser printing which she has since used almost exclusively. Part of its appeal is its ease and

accessibility. It is also well suited to Ford's desire for layered images, once possible only with superimpositions (the use of more than

one negative) or photomontages. In addition, the process facilitates the combination of disparate visual material; Ford's laser prints are

made from hand-coloured collages of video or still photographic images and, in The Wonder Book of Empire, textual elements as well.

The final picture is in a grid format, each individual unit an A3 sheet. An effect of immediacy is achieved by pinning the prints to the wall,

rather than framing them.

From Van Diemens Land to Video Land, Shadow Portraits and The Wonder Boole of Empire all comprise laser prints. In these series

history itself has become the subject, with Ford focusing on the moment of Australia's colonisation.22 This is, of course, a political

matter. Sue Ford is not alone in her belief that re-examining and re-imagining the past is a crucial cultural task. As David Tracey has

argued: “our foundation myths must be reworked, updated and dreamed onward to ensure that past and present are brought together in a

meaningful way"·23 The aim is not to make the present more secure, but to "overthrow stereotypes, to disrupt our self-knowledge, and to

expose new possibilities where before there was dull agreement about our 'history’”.24

At first glance Ford's recent work may appear to mark a break with that of the past - especially in terms of its scale, colour and process.

Such differences are, however, only superficial. As this exhibition makes clear, Sue Ford's art practice of the last three decades shares

formal, conceptual and political characteristics.25

It is united by her passionate engagement with life and her commitment to an art that is accessible and relevant to contemporary



The children's books have not been published but The witch’s letter,

printed up as photographic series, is in the collection of the

National Gallery of Australia.


see Catriona Moore, Indecent Exposure; Twenty Years of Australian

Feminist Photography, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1994.


Sue Ford, A Sixtieth of a Second, Experimental Art Foundation,

Adelaide, 1987, preface.


Sue Ford. ibid.


Sue Ford. ibid.


Only One of Ford's photographs was published during the 1960s:

Contentment, an engaging child study, was awarded first in the

Beginners Section in Australian Photography magazine of August,

1963. Big Secret took out second in the same issue. Her photographs

of Helen and Peter Laycock were published in Fire and Clay in 1970.


"Ilford Scholarship to Melbourne Photographer”, in Photography

News, no.7, 30, c.1973.


Sue Ford, "The Tide Recedes", in Professional Photography in

Australia, September-October, 1971, pp. 31-34.


"Photography as an art form", The Age, December 3, 1971, p.8. See

also Sheila Sibley, "The three careers of a frail dynamo", Woman's

Day, 11 October 1971, pp.23; 68-69.


"Ilford Scholarship to Melbourne Photographer”, in Photography

News, no.7, 30., c. 1973.


See, for example, Geoffrey de Groen's review, "Brilliant photo-

graphs", in The Canberra Times, 27 November, 1974.


Unfortunately none of these screenprlnts have survived. Ford

recalls that Bea Maddock's presence was affirming as few women

taught at the Art School. Maddock was also interested in the

crossovers between photography and other media.


Other women in the group included Micky Allan, Christine

Berkman, Janine Burke, Liz Coates, Isabel Davies, Lesley

Dumbrell, Bonita Ely, Elizabeth Gower, Ann Stephens, Jenny

Watson. For further discussion about the key role of friendship

and the development of the women' s art movement see Janine

Burke, Field of Vision. A Decade of Change: Women's Art in the Seventies.

Penguin Books, Australia, 199O.


Janine Burke, ibid., p.2.


Annette Messager. Faire Parade 1971-95, Paris, Musee d'Art Moderne

de la ville de Paris. 1995, p,78.


Sue Ford in Graham Howe, New Photography Australia: A selective

survey, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, 1974, p.96,


Janine Burke, Self-portrait/Self-image 1980-81, Australian Gallery

Directors’ Council, 1998, p.8.


Robert Nery, "Memories worth the seeing" in Filmnews, 12

September, 1990.


Artist’s statement in Time Changes: Films by Sue Ford and Carol Jerrems,

flyer, Australian Centre for Photography, 1990.


“Sue Ford Film-Make," in Jenepher Duncan (ed.), Women and Art:

Into the Eighties: Women and Writing; Into the Eighties, Monash

University Department of Visual Arts, Melbourne. 1980, p.10.


Sue Ford A Different Landscape, Melbourne Contemporary Art Gallery

19 April - 9 May 1989 (exhibition broadsheet). The outcome of

Ford's 1988 workshop was an exhibition of photographs by Tiwi

women, Photos of Tiwi People working and hunting together, held at

24 Hour Art in Darwin in 1993 and Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in

Melbourne. Ford revisited Bathurst Island in 1991.


For a fuller discussion of From Van Diemens Land to Video Land, see

Helen Ennis, "A Shared future" in From Van Diemens Land to Video

Land: Colour Laser Prints by Sue Ford, Canberra School of Art Gallery,

Canberra, 1993.


David Tracey, "Dreaming our myths onwards”, in Island, no.53,

Summer, 1992, p.58.


David Tracey, ibid.


Ford has related her ongoing interest in 'layered lime' to the

experience of living some of her life in bushland areas and her

familiarity with the cycles of growth and decay. See artist's

statement in Time Surfaces, Colour Laser Prints by Sue Ford, National

Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (exhibition catalogue, 1994).