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

the 1970s.

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,

p. 17.

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.

6      ibid.

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.

10      ibid.

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.

16      ibid.

17      ibid.

18      ibid.

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.

20      ibid.

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,

Melbourne, 1994.

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.

28      ibid.