Sue Ford: 1943–2009

Ford’s art was dominated by her interest in time: in how it changes us; in how it propels life; in how the past is in the present and even in our futures.

Isobel Crombie

Print this article Printer Friendly Version

Sue Ford. Self-Portrait 1969

Sue Ford
Self-Portrait 1969
gelatin silver photograph
courtesy the Estate of Sue Ford and Arc One Gallery, Melbourne

The art world lost a significant and much admired member of its community with the recent death of Sue Ford. Ford had a long and outstanding career as a photographer and filmmaker and was an active and engaged member of the arts community. She was a pioneer of Australian photography and was one of this country’s few women art photographers when she began her practice in the 1960s.

Ford’s art was dominated by her interest in time: in how it changes us; in how it propels life; in how the past is in the present and even in our futures. It seems appropriate, therefore, that she had a life-long love affair with photography because it is a medium intimately connected with time. But the camera also suited her perfectly in other ways too. For Ford, it was a natural, spontaneous, unprecious device that was an adjunct to her art and her life. It suited her open and pragmatic nature and, in her practiced hands, could be incisive, accessible, and real. Ford wasn’t a photographer alone: she also did significant work in film and video (she was a founding member of the Reel Women film collective in 1980 for instance); she also painted, drew and made books. She chose whatever medium was necessary to express her ideas but photography remained a constant.

Sue Ford From the Time series. Robin & Jenny 1969-1982

Sue Ford
Robin & Jenny 1969–1982
from the Time series 1962–1974
gelatin silver photographs
courtesy the Estate of Sue Ford and Arc One Gallery, Melbourne

Sue Ford. From Time series. Ross 1969-1974

Sue Ford
Ross 1964; Ross 1974
from the Time series 1962–1974
gelatin silver photographs
courtesy the Estate of Sue Ford and Arc One Gallery, Melbourne

One of Ford’s great early contributions to the medium was her remarkable Time series 1974. In many ways it is a deceptively straightforward but exceptional body of work. Ford took portraits of various people in 1964. They are direct images with the men and women looking straight to camera. Ten years later she photographed the same people again. When shown together, the paired portraits chart the changes brought about by age and life experiences. She returned to this theme several times in differing photographic series and also produced two films. The first, in 1975, was Faces and she revisited the subject (assisted by her son, Ben) in Faces 1976-1996.

Ford’s work was often based on collaboration. She thrived as part of communities and she was energised and supported by creative interchange. Part of this way of working and living was no doubt influenced by her involvement in the early women’s art movement in the 1970s and her photographs were often included in feminist publications including Lip. Helen Ennis, who, in 1995, mounted a survey of Ford’s work at Monash University Gallery, has written of how important feminism was to her art and its strategies of giving primacy and validity to the everyday facts of women’s lives strongly impacted on her.

This interest is clearly apparent in a book she published called A Sixtieth of a Second: Portraits of Women 1961-1981. Ford had gone back through her archive of negatives and ‘with incredulous eyes’ she found that they told an important story of women’s lives. The photographs are as much about Ford’s own journey as the hopes and dreams of a generation of Australian women. Some of these moving, poignant and often funny images were exhibited at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1982 (as The Photobook of Women), and the National Gallery of Victoria held an exhibition of them in 1988.

Sue Ford - Discussions Between Bob Hawke and Galarrwuy Yunupingu

Sue Ford
Discussions Between Bob Hawke and Galarrwuy Yunupingu
(Galwarrway is painted with his father’s body design from the Gumatj clan) 1988
from the Treaty Meeting at Barunga, NT series 1988
gelatin silver photograph
courtesy the Estate of Sue Ford and Arc One Gallery, Melbourne

The 1980s were a productive time for Ford. She became fascinated by history, in particular white cultural history and identity. Although intellectually based, Ford’s approach was certainly not dry and academic – her work was based on actual experiences. In 1988 she went to Bathurst Island to work with Tiwi women, to teach them photography and, ultimately, help them mount an exhibition. It was an important trip for her and she later wrote that 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’. She also went to the Barunga Festival which was an annual gathering of indigenous people. She photographed meetings between the then Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Galarrwuy Yunupingu regarding a Treaty. It was an important event and the photographs she took are now part of Australian visual and political history.

Ford had a fluid approach to her art practice – she never persisted in one style of working if it no longer served her ideas. Around this time, she began to move out of the documentary way of working and instead used the new technologies of digital processes such as laser jet printing. She continued to reflect on the colonial experience and many of her highly innovative images were shown in the exhibition Time Surfaces at the NGV in 1994.

Sue Ford. Somewhere in France 1917

Sue Ford
Somewhere in France: 1917 1999 (detail)
digital print
courtesy the Estate of Sue Ford and Arc One Gallery, Melbourne

Five years later Ford created a major series for the prestigious Clemenger Award that was the most personal of her inquiries into Australian identity. Titled Somewhere in France: 1917 it was inspired by the war journals of her grandfather Jim Keating who served in the First World War. Ford’s images featured large prints of classical busts – great stony monoliths – on which she overlayed some of her grandfather’s powerful diary entries. It is a complex and often moving meditation on war and nationhood.

Ford always had a fascination with time but hers was not the rather depressing Western linear view of life as having a beginning, middle and end. Instead she saw the past informing the present in an active way and life as a continuum that was constantly evolving. It is very apt, then, that some of the last photographs she made (on commission for the Rupert Bunny Foundation at the City of Port Philip) returned to her childhood. They drew on her memories of living on Acland Street as a young girl for a few years from 1945. As with much of Ford’s work they were both personal but also universal in their grasp on what it is to be a child. When I saw them – only a few months ago – I was struck by how very alive they were.

It is hard to think that relatively soon after I saw these photographs, Sue Ford was gone. She undoubtedly went too soon. I know from talking to her family that she had many art projects and ideas that she wanted to realise. She had recently been awarded a new work grant from the Australia Council and was keen to start on a semi-documentary video and photography project revolving around her relative Edward Munday who came on the First Fleet. She was also actively discussing an exhibition with the Monash Gallery of Art (which will now take place in 2011).

Sue Ford. Self-Portrait

Sue Ford
Self-Portrait 2004
courtesy the Estate of Sue Ford and Arc One Gallery, Melbourne

It is painful to think that Ford will not be here to realise her plans but it is some consolation to know that her work will remain a powerful on-going testament to her ideas and her distinctive presence. We are pleased to have many of her photographs in our permanent collection at the NGV, as indeed do other major public galleries and these works will continue to take a place on our walls and in our publications in perpetuity. It is a legacy of which she should be proud and which her much loved children, Ben and Emma, her family and her many friends and colleagues certainly are.

Tags: , ,

2 Comments

  1. Katherine Chinnick commented on June 22, 2010 | Permalink

    After having the privilage of a residency at Dunmoochin in ‘06, my partner and I stayed on in the area. I have been compilling a personal history of and for Alma Shannahan, and the beginnings of Dunmoochin Community. We have been taking particular interest in the Pottery sales, held each month, and wondered if Sue would have taken photos of any of these events in the 60’s.
    I have really enjoyed your web-site and shall seek out other exhibitions in the future. Kate

  2. Lyn Tucker commented on November 24, 2011 | Permalink

    I caught the tail end of an interview with Sue’s son recently and decided to look her up. What a bitter sweet story, such a shame Sue has left us so early, and with so many plans left undone. Very sad. Her son was sorting through his Mum’s works. That touched me immensly.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

*
*