Sue Ford's history
by Helen Ennis ©
Art Journal of the National Gallery of Victoria, 50th Edition, 2011
I have always been interested in how actions taken in the past could affect and echo in
peoples’ lives in the present. Most of my work is to do with thinking about human existence
from this perspective.
— Sue Ford 1
In 1988 Sue Ford was invited to Bathurst Island to conduct some adult education classes with Tiwi
women. It was a timely invitation for the Melbourne-based photographer, coinciding with events
marking the Bicentenary of European settlement and her own growing preoccupation with questions
of Australian identity. The visit to Bathurst Island, and to the Barunga sports and cultural festival in
the Northern Territory a few weeks later, proved to be life-changing events for Ford. Her concerns
with history and her long-standing investigations of time came together, triggering new directions in
her photographic practice. This essay is concerned with Ford’s engagement with Australian history
– what I will refer to as ‘living history’ – during the years 1988 to 1995. It considers two main bodies
of work: documentary black and white photographs taken at Barunga (1988) (fig. 3) and the series
Shadow portraits, 1994 (fig. 1), comprising colour laser copies.2
Sue Ford’s concerns with time and with change have been well recognised. She signalled them herself in the titles she chose for some of
the key works in her long career: the Time series, 1961–82, the film Time changes, 1978, and the later series of colour laser copies, Time
surfaces, 1994. One of her best-known strategies was to photograph the same person over a period of time, whether a few days (as long
as it took to grow a beard) in a sequence entitled Growth, 1975, or many years, as in Lynne 1964/Lynne 1974 (fig. 2) from the Time series,
which juxtaposes still photographs of the subject’s face taken ten years apart. For Ford’s film Faces, 1996, produced in collaboration with
her son Ben Ford, she filmed the same subjects featured in Faces 1, made twenty years earlier. Ford subjected herself to the same kind
of extended and unrelenting scrutiny in her My faces series, 1975, which mapped changes in her appearance from childhood up to the
then present when, at the conclusion of her project, she was aged thirty-two.
A feminist approach
Until 1988 Ford was known principally for work that was motivated by feminist politics, that dealt with the lives of contemporary women
and the politics of representation. She worked across media, using black and white photography, film and video. Her photography from the
early 1960s onwards was based on what she regarded as photography’s objective capacity; in other words, she utilised the camera as a
means of recording whatever she placed in front of it. This interest in ‘objectivity’ related more to the practices of conceptual art than to
the heightened subjectivity, or subjective documentary that prevailed in art photography, especially during the seventies. Ford’s feminist
photography can be regarded as objective but not as ‘documentary’ in the terms the latter is conventionally understood because there was
nothing surreptitious or spontaneous about it. Her approach was non-exploitative and consensual in keeping with the politics of feminism
and the counterculture. From the beginning of her career, her subjects were mostly friends and acquaintances; they knew they were being
photographed and agreed to it. This consensual approach and its interrelated performative element were adopted by other feminist
photographers, such as Carol Jerrems, Ponch Hawkes and Ruth Maddison, in their work during
In the 1970s and 80s Ford’s photography differed from mainstream practice in another fundamental way. It did not relate to the purist and
fine art traditions that underpinned the case for photography’s acceptance as art. Her prints were grainy, rough and often very small. Ford
conceived photography in radical terms, as a plastic medium that was entwined with other art practices. In an interview at the time she
was awarded a scholarship to fund her studies at the Victorian College of the Arts in 1973–74, she emphasised her interest in artists’ use
of photography: ‘Some artists are utilising phototechniques and are thinking in a photographic way. I want to use some of their techniques
and materials to extend photography into other dimensions’.3
A different landscape
Ford’s straight black and white photography from Barunga therefore appeared to mark a dramatic rupture with her feminist and
conceptually oriented practice, both in content and style. When it was exhibited in A Different Landscape in 1989, together with a series of
photographs from Bathurst Island and another series taken during NAIDOC week in Melbourne, it caused some consternation.4 The most
scathing assessment came from Susan Fereday in an exhibition review published in Agenda, which it is necessary to elaborate upon in
some detail. Fereday praised Ford’s earlier explorations of representations of female identity which she noted pre-dated debates on
representation and gender that took hold in the 1980s. She argued that Ford engaged ‘in issues of feminist cultural concern’, not only in
‘the subject/content of her work but also in the methodological and aesthetic elements she employed’.5 However, in her view, the work
presented in A Different Landscape was a failure. It ‘attempts to address its political content more directly but lacks any such
consideration of its aesthetic, methodological, or contextual relationship with dominant photographic practice’.6
Fereday claimed that, in her 1988 work, Ford used photography ‘in an un-problematic fashion’ and concluded, ‘Against her earlier efforts
this collection is an aberration as much as an abrogation’.7
A few years later, in 1992, in a review of an exhibition of contemporary photography held at the National Gallery of Victoria, which included
Ford’s post-1988 work, Anne Marsh wrote – presumably referring to Fereday’s review – that ‘the framing of Aboriginal history in early work
[by Ford] has been criticised for its implicit voyeurism’.8 I want to argue differently. As I see it, Ford’s Barunga work continued with many
of her political, methodological and aesthetic concerns and was also innovative in a number of important respects.
In 1986 Ford began to consciously investigate aspects of Australian history in a project she referred to loosely as Project X. It was
triggered by a visit to Hobart where she photographed the displays relating to convict and Aboriginal history at the Tasmanian Museum
and Art Gallery. In the lead-up to the Bicentenary, amid debates about Australian history and identity, her investigations narrowed to focus
more sharply on Indigenous history. As she had realised at TMAG, the displays on the ‘Social Organisation of an Aboriginal Family’ had
‘nothing to do with Aboriginal culture in any way … the human quality … seemed to be seriously missing’.9
As was characteristic of Ford, her investigation of history and culture and its social, political and aesthetic dimensions proceeded on a
first-person basis. She reflected on her own circumstances, her upbringing and education in the Melbourne suburb of Gardenvale in the
1950s in which Aboriginal people were entirely absent; she later recalled that she never saw an Aboriginal person around Gardenvale and
that they had no presence in the official history she learned at school. The only Aboriginal point of view she encountered in her childhood
was an Albert Namatjira print of ‘a gum tree standing in a country of bright shimmering colours and shadows’ that her family had at home.
10 These personal experiences of the invisibility of Aboriginal people were of course typical of the situation in Australia during the
twentieth century, which anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner eloquently described as ‘a cult of forgetfulness practiced on a national scale’.11
An Aboriginal perspective
Paralleling her exploration of the lives of contemporary women, the dynamic interaction between personal experience and broader
sociopolitical realities provided Ford with fertile ground for her consideration of history and identity. Ford’s friend Virginia Fraser described
the situation being faced by Australian society in 1988 as follows:
The very public debates around the government-sponsored celebrations and the contemporaneous issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody
forcefully exposed non-Aboriginal Australians to Aboriginal points of view on Australian history, including the history of invasion,
massacres, and sanitizing euphemisms.12
Ford’s trip to the festival at Barunga near Katherine in the
Northern Territory was made before she spent several
weeks on Bathurst Island where she taught photography
to Tiwi women.13 Ford’s direct encounter with Aboriginal
culture – with living history – had a profound affect on her.
At Barunga (and Bathurst Island) she pursued what was in
fact a radical strategy – aesthetically, by using straight
photography when postmodernist fabrication and bricolage
was the dominant style; and politically, by addressing an
Aboriginal perspective. The importance of the Barunga
events is declared most obviously in the large, public
scale of the prints. Discussions after the Barunga meeting
(fig. 3), measuring 122 centimetres by 152 centimetres is
typical. Its size invites a comparison with history painting
which is reinforced by the choice of a subject of historical
Following Anne Marsh’s provocative reference to the ‘implicit voyeurism’ of the Barunga series (and its two companion series that
constituted A Different Landscape), Ford went to considerable lengths to explain the circumstances behind the photographs. In a letter to
Art Monthly Australia in 1992, she stressed that Aboriginal people at the Northern Land Council had asked her to take them; that they
supported her decision to exhibit them the following year; and that she had given sets of prints to the Northern Land Council in Darwin and
the Aboriginal Advancement League in Melbourne where they were on display. This ethical position based on consent and reciprocity was
typical of Ford’s practice. Also crucial, and consistent with her earlier work, was the conception of her role as an advocate for
sociopolitical change. In her Art Monthly letter Ford made it clear that the 1988 Barunga Festival was conceived as an historic event,
underpinned by a great sense of occasion and full of hope for the future. Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke, Gerry Hand, Minister for
Aboriginal Affairs, and other officials and dignitaries were in attendance for an express purpose. Aboriginal leaders, including Galarrwuy
Yunupingu (then chairman of the Northern Land Council), Bangardi Lee and Wenton Rubuntja had prepared a statement on Aboriginal self-
determination (now known as the Barunga Statement) for presentation to the Australian Government. It called for ‘Aboriginal self-
management, a national system of land rights, compensation for loss of lands, respect for Aboriginal identity, an end to discrimination and
the granting of full civil, economic, social and cultural rights for Indigenous Australians’.14
The prime minister gave in-principle agreement to the demands presented by the Aboriginal leaders and famously announced: ‘The
Government will negotiate a Treaty … But you, the Aboriginal people, should decide what it is you want to see in that Treaty’.15
Ford photographed Gerry Hand after the discussions, at the end of what she described as ‘an emotion-charged day’.16 Discussions after
the Barunga meeting can be read in terms of testimony and a calling to account. In concert with other Barunga photographs it has a vital
evidentiary role; this was reinforced in the exhibition A Different Landscape by Ford’s use of text which quoted from the July 1988 issue of
the Land Right News (published by the Northern Territory Land Councils). It should also be noted that, to achieve a sense of immediacy
and relevance, Ford chose to pin the Barunga photographs to the wall rather than frame them. While Hawke expressed the view (and
hope) that the treaty would be concluded during the life of his government, Ford caustically noted in her letter to Art Monthly in 1992 that
Hawke’s words already looked ‘like a pile of old political bullshit’.17
In my view, Ford’s position in the Barunga series is far more nuanced than Fereday or Marsh recognised. In her own defence Ford stated:
I personally didn’t feel like an ‘outsider’, to use the reviewer’s words, witnessing and recording these events, as of course we all live here
on this island and will necessarily have ‘a shared future’ as we have ‘a shared past’.18
What is pivotal here is her take on documentary, which curator Terence Maloon argued departed significantly from the colonialist tradition
of documentary photography. In his catalogue essay for the exhibition From the Empire’s End: Nine Australian Photographers, which
included several Barunga photographs, he drew attention to Ford’s subversion of traditional documentary photography’s ‘habitual unself-
conscious and unself-critical assumptions about the beholder’s point-of-view and right of access to the people or territory represented’.19
He claimed that, in the Barunga photographs – for example, of women dancers whose backs were turned to the camera – Ford broke with
a long-established Australian convention: in her photographs, the viewer is made conscious of exclusion, of being out of place, perhaps of
trespassing on other people’s land and taking an illegitimate interest in their affairs.20
The fact that Ford does not let her viewers in is a profoundly respectful gesture, an assertion that presence – hers, ours – is contingent.
This is much more complex than the insider/outsider, either/or relationship that Fereday and Marsh posited. She was attempting to find a
new position, one in which settler and Indigenous Australians were given equivalence, represented as equal partners. Indeed, her work can
be seen as a testing of the process of reconciliation itself, based on mutual respect and a commitment to what she hopefully described as
‘a shared future’. From her perspective, Barunga was a groundbreaking event, because ‘this representative of my culture … Bob Hawke,
was negotiating [with Aboriginal people] in … an Aboriginal context’.21
It bears reiterating that, at this historical moment, an Aboriginal perspective was gaining ground within settler culture and Aboriginal art
was in the ascendancy. Tracey Moffatt had already produced Some lads, 1986, and Something more was soon to follow in 1989. The
ambitious Bicentennial project, After 200 Years: Photographic Essays of Aboriginal and Islander Life in Australia, mounted by the
Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, included Aboriginal photographers, among them Ricky Maynard, Michael Riley and Alana Harris.
Its aim, which Ford supported, was to ‘develop a genre of collaborative documentary photography in which the participants were actively
A postmodern idiom
The next major public airing of Ford’s exploration into
questions of Australian history and identity was the series
Shadow portraits, 1994, included in the exhibition Time
Surfaces: Colour Laser Prints by Sue Ford held at the National
Gallery of Victoria. Shadow portraits differed from the Barunga
series in a number of fundamental ways: for example, the main
focus was not on Indigenous history, a straight photographic
approach was not utilised and colour was introduced. While a
postcolonial stance remained consistent, the adoption of a
self-consciously postmodern idiom was relatively new to Ford,
first becoming apparent two years earlier in works such as
Yellowcake (fig. 4) from the series Van Diemen’s Land to
Video Land, 1992. For Shadow portraits, Ford, like numerous
artists in this period, mined historical archives of photographs
for her source material, decontextualising and reworking it. Her
starting point was nineteenth-century studio portraits of settler
Australians that were popular in colonial society. She exploded
her previous practice and intense focus on the faces of individuals; in most cases the subjects of the original photographs used in
Shadow portraits are unrecognisable. Their faces have been emptied out and replaced by Ford’s generic images of Australian foliage,
especially fern fronds. All the details that define an individual, their character and appearance, have disappeared, just like the sitters
themselves who have been dead for decades and exist only in ghosted form.
Individual works in Shadow portraits (fig. 1) rely on a dynamic relationship between historical and contemporary images to create
something new. The original studio portrait is not intact, having undergone an extended process of transformation; being re-photographed,
cut up and photocopied to eventually take the form of a large gridded image. Use of the grid – an obvious reference to European systems
of containment and control – continues the experimentation evident in Yellowcake. Overlaps, like the doubled image of a stereoscopic
card, are purposefully exploited. The aim is to destabilise a once-static historic image, to turn the small into big, the tones into colour, the
positive into negative and so on. Through these means the colonial past is represented as having continuing reverberations: the loss of
concreteness in the images and distortions of scale parallel the incompleteness, gaps and blow-outs characteristic of any historical
narrative. As Zara Stanhope writes, Ford’s Shadow portraits ‘image the ongoing processes involved in the construction of histories, and
the power to know and remember, that provides the opportunity to revisit or critique such accounts’.23
It is in Shadow portraits that the time of history and time of nature begin to effectively coalesce. Ford later articulated her interest ‘in
working with elements of layered time’ as being related to the years she had spent living in the bush and her familiarity with natural cycles
‘of growth and decay and the wonderful fragile and timeless nature of the land’.24 But this interest in time – in living history – has other
significant resonances, above all, with Indigenous experience. In 2010 Indigenous artist Judy Watson gave an insight into her responses
to particular sites, stating:
Sometimes when I look at land I have a feeling of dread. There may be nothing tangible but something has probably happened there years
ago and I sense a negative atmosphere.25
Ford explained that, when she was working with Tiwi women on Bathurst Island in 1988, she experienced the landscape differently: ‘During
the hunting and bush education trips that the women took me on, the landscape became alive with their history and meaning’.26 As her
practice evolved in the years after 1988, she became deeply concerned with creating an ongoing conversation between the past and
present, between the dead and living. Even such categories as these are too firmly delineated, too separate from one another to convey
her predilection for incompleteness and purposeful irresolution. In Stephen Zagala’s catalogue essay for Living Deadly: Haunted Surfaces
in Contemporary Art, 2010, he discusses art’s ‘uncanny ability to re-animate the forgotten and the dead’, arguing that, in both Western and
non-Western traditions, ‘art is often used to summon ghosts and memories, giving them a physical presence through palpable artistic
sensations of colour, form and texture’.27 Ford may not use the different optical surfaces mobilised by other artists ‘to invigorate our
relationships with ancestors, the otherworldly and our own mortality’,28 but she does rely on the layering and fabricated nature of her
imagery to achieve similar effects.
The postcolonial stance evident in Sue Ford’s Barunga series and Shadow portraits accords to the liberationist principles that underpinned
all her work. Her practice was driven by the imperative of freedom and desire for a better world. Insofar as her investigations into
Australian history were concerned, freedom meant being free from ‘official’ history and the colonisation of one’s own mind. In Ford’s work
from 1989 to 1994, history and time collapsed into each other: history is not represented as a past, self-enclosed event but as ongoing,
with us still.
Helen Ennis, Associate Professor, Australian National University, School of Art (in 2011).
1 Sue Ford, ‘Project X’, in Helen Ennis & Virginia Fraser, Sue Ford: A Survey 1960–1995. Monash University Gallery, Clayton, 1995,
2 Other investigations into history include the series From Van Diemen’s Land to Video Land and The wonder book of Empire. For a
discussion on the former, see Helen Ennis, ‘A shared future’, in From Van Diemen’s Land to Video Land: Colour Laser Prints by Sue Ford,
Canberra School of Art Gallery, Canberra, 1993, unpaginated.
3 ‘Ilford scholarship to Melbourne photographer’, Photography News, vol. 7, no. 30, c.1973.
4 A Different Landscape was shown at three venues in 1989: the Aborigines’ Advancement League in Victoria, the Tiwi Museum at
Bathurst Island, and Melbourne Contemporary Art Gallery (a commercial gallery).
5 Susan Fereday, ‘Stuck in the approximate’, Agenda, no. 5, 1989, p. 26.
7 ibid., p. 27.
8 Anne Marsh, ‘Myths and narratives’, Art Monthly Australia, no. 47, March 1992, p. 22. Marsh was reviewing three exhibitions at the
National Gallery of Victoria.
9 Ford, p. 18.
11 W. E. H. Stanner, After the Dreaming: Black and White Australians, an Anthropologist’s View, Australian Broadcasting
Commission, Sydney, 1969, p. 25.
12 Fraser, ‘Collaborations at the border line’, in Sue Ford, p. 20. Fraser cites Hetti Perkins & Brenda Croft, ‘Truths, myths and little
white lies’, in True Colours: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Artists Raise the Flag, Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative, Sydney,
13 Ford’s friend Kathy Barnes invited her to visit Bathurst Island. Barnes was involved in adult education on the island; she taught
batik to Tiwi women and had been previously involved in developing the batik industry at Utopia during 1985–87. My thanks to Marie
McMahon for providing information on Ford’s residency.
14 See .
15 Sue Ford, ‘1988 – Who’s history?’[sic], Art Monthly Australia, no. 49, May 1992, p. 18.
19 Terence Maloon, From the Empire’s End: Nine Australian Photographers. On the Shadow Line: Ten Spanish Photographers, Circulo
de Bellas Artes, Madrid, 1991, p. 31.
21 Ford, quoted in Fraser, p. 19.
22 Penny Taylor (ed.), After 200 Years: Photographic Essays of Aboriginal and Islander Australia Today, Aboriginal Studies Press,
Canberra, 1988, p. xv.
23 Zara Stanhope, ‘Recovering lost ground – Sue Ford’s Shadow portraits’, in Juliana Engberg (ed.), Colonial Post Colonial, Heide
Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, 1996, p. 37.
24 Sue Ford, artist’s statement, in Denise Robinson, Time Surfaces: Colour Laser Prints by Sue Ford, National Gallery of Victoria,
25 Gillian Wills, ‘Judy Watson: Charting the natural world’, Artist Profile, issue 13, 2010, p. 57.
26 Sue Ford: A Different Landscape, Melbourne Contemporary Art Gallery, Melbourne, 1989 [exhibition broadsheet].
27 Stephen Zagala, Living Deadly: Haunted Surfaces in Contemporary Art, Monash Gallery of Art, Wheelers Hill, 2010, unpaginated.
The exhibition featured works by nine artists, including photographically based works by Brook Andrew and Anne Ferran.