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Making sense: contemporary LA photo artists

13 photographs from southern California

Ken Gonzales-Day (USA b1964) At daylight the miserable man got carried to an oak 2002, printed 2007, from the series Hang trees type C photograph, 127 × 183 cm, Gift of Geoff and Vicki Ainsworth 2008 © Ken Gonzales-Day.
Sharon Lockhart (USA b1964) Untitled 2007 type C photograph, 110.5 × 152.5 cm sight, Gift of Geoff and Vicki Ainsworth 2008 © Sharon Lockhart

Despite the powerful impression of reality… photographs, in themselves, are fragmentary and incomplete utterances.

– Allan Sekula 1986

Since 2007 the Art Gallery of New South Wales has been developing a collection of contemporary photography from southern California, an initiative funded by benefactors Geoff and Vicki Ainsworth and developed by senior curator photographs, Judy Annear. Making sense: contemporary LA photo artists is an opportunity to present the 13 photographs in this collection for the first time.

Making sense builds on existing works in the Gallery’s permanent collection by American artists Allan Sekula, Ed Ruscha, Bill Viola and Paul McCarthy, while taking into consideration the rich collection of 1970s and ’80s Californian photography (the New Topographics) at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Looking at mostly younger practitioners, the 13 acquisitions consist of works by Sekula, Uta Barth, Miles Coolidge, Shannon Ebner, Christina Fernandez, Ken Gonzales-Day, Anthony Hernandez, Sharon Lockhart, Catherine Opie and Mark Wyse.

The contemporary art scene in Los Angeles is very rich, in part due to the large number of excellent universities in the area which have strong teaching programs in photomedia. Many of the artists who have been selected are already involved in these educational programs. Varied and diverse in their concerns and aims, they have engaged with the legacy of American conceptual, minimalist and documentary photography, developing it in interesting and unexpected ways.

The interest in the cultural and political implications of urban environments, architecture and the divide between public and private space is a strong thread in the works of photographers such as Anthony Hernandez and Sharon Lockhart, among others. Ideas about social connectivity and communication remain pertinent, as can be seen in Catherine Opie’s portraits and street photographs. Many of the images in the exhibition share a subtle sense of irony, which permeates the playfully dadaist Stool by Miles Coolidge and Shannon Ebner’s deadpan explorations of the relationships between word and image. Collectively, all the artists raise questions about the way we see the world, the nature of the photographic object and its power to transform perception. This is a particularly strong focus in the diverse works of Uta Barth and Mark Wyse. Meanwhile, the documentary images by prominent theoretician, teacher and artist Allan Sekula argue for the continuing political and social significance of photography in our increasingly globalised era.

Often confrontational, the photographs reveal enlightening perspectives about American culture today and the world at large. In their attempts to make sense of reality, history, place and identity, these Southern California-based photographers reflect interests and approaches that are truly international in scope. As noted by American writer and artist Thomas McGovern in a 2006 essay, if ‘there cannot be a regionally identifiable style or subject matter, there is a regional attitude that embraces the present and constructs a reality for our use.’

On view
11 Feb – 13 May 2012
Art Gallery of New South Wales
Art Gallery Road, The Domain, Sydney


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Susanne Briggs
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