Farewell Stills

Published July 15, 2017
Last day at Stills. 4th, 5th & 6th from the left: Sandy Edwards, Kathy Freedman, Bronwyn Rennex

Twenty-six years is a long time to be running a commercial gallery, let alone a gallery specialising in photography. When Kathy Freedman and her partners close Stills Gallery in mid-July, it will spell the end of a long adventure in convincing Sydney audiences that photography is art.
Stills began life in a Paddington terrace house in 1991. Freedman was a psychologist with a fascination for photography, who realised the medium was being poorly served in the city during a very fertile period. At Sydney College of the Arts there was a whole new crop of artist-photographers who had studied with the late, great John Williams. In the museums photography was being championed by Gael Newton, who had been an active and influential curator, first at the Art Gallery of NSW, then at the National Gallery of Australia.
Freedman was excited by the new ideas and techniques being explored. Many of the emerging photographers were women who imbued their work with a feminist dimension. It wasn’t mere propaganda but an imaginative blend of art and politics.
For more conventional photographers exhibition options were just as limited. Freedman recalls: “I got talking to many different photographers who felt there wasn’t much opportunity to show, or to see the work that interested them.”
The major outlet was the Australian Centre for Photography, which had existed since the 1970s, but was going through a “conceptual” phase. “This would have been fine,” Freedman says, “if there’d been some attempt to connect with audiences. Instead there was a general feeling of alienation.”
Freedman took leave from work to start Stills. When her initial business partner left she hooked up with photographer, Sandy Edwards, who had participated in the gallery’s inaugural exhibition. Edwards would step back after 13 years, to take on a casual curatorial role, and Freedman found a new co-director in another photographer, Bronwyn Rennex.
At Stills, Freedman, Edwards and Rennex are an inseparable trio. They add to each other’s recollections, finish each other’s sentences, and launch into mini-debates on the nature of photography. It’s clear that the enterprise has always been a co-operative venture, not a one-woman show.
A key moment arrived in 1997 when the lease on the first gallery expired, and Freedman was able to secure a converted warehouse space in Gosbell Street, Paddington. The move coincided with big changes in the world of photography, as artists began to explore the possibilities of digital imaging. The new venue was big enough to display the large, detailed prints that were being produced.
“The boundaries between media were breaking down in those years,” says Freedman. “There was an increasing number of so-called ‘artists working with photography’, and we were able to ride that wave, striving to appeal to a much wider audience. It saved us, because Australia doesn’t have a big enough market to survive solely by selling traditional photography.”
For the past 20 years Stills has given space to the most hotly contested topics in photography: black-and-white versus colour; the documentary tradition versus the new vogue for constructed imagery. The directors accept that photography is “not one thing any more”.
The closing exhibition contains classic black-and-white images by artists such as Sandy Edwards, Steven Lojewski and Ian Dodd; colour by, among others, Glenn Sloggett, Petrina Hicks and Polixeni Papapetrou. There are more experimental works, such as James Tylor’s contemporary Daguerrotypes, found images by Patrick Pound, and Anne Noble’s 3D prints of bees. There are pictures by international stars such as Roger Ballen and Mary Ellen Mark; by indigenous photographers, Michael Riley and Ricky Maynard; and representative works by figures such as Trent Parke, Narelle Autio and Pat Brassington, who have been among the gallery’s most popular exhibitors.
Behind the decision to close is a recognition that audience expectations have changed. “People today seem to think you can get your art experiences on-line,” says Freedman. “It’s harder to entice them into a gallery when they’re so used to viewing photographic images on a screen. But I really believe there’s no substitute for the direct experience of the presence and power of a work of art.”
This is a trend that is impacting on all galleries, but it is particularly difficult for those specialising in photography. Over the years there have been many photography outlets in Sydney, but they have usually lasted for only a year or two.
Nowadays an increasing volume of dealer sales worldwide are occurring at art fairs, but the costs of participation are daunting for a photography gallery that sells works in a lower price bracket. It’s harder still when you are showing Australian artists who are not familiar to overseas audiences.
Stills has enjoyed considerable success at art fairs, with editions selling out and collectors putting themselves on waiting lists for new work. These were contemporary art collectors, people who might normally restrict themselves to buying works by big names such as Bill Henson or Tracey Moffatt, known as artists rather than photographers.
There’s no doubt who has been Stills’ number one private collector: “Elton John,” says Freedman. “He’s incredible.”
On every trip to Australia, the singer, who is also one of the world’s leading collectors of photography, has gone on a shopping binge at the gallery.
In Australia Freedman admits there are not a lot of people who identify as dedicated photography collectors. She estimates that 50 percent of Stills’s total sales have been made by institutions, while the gallery’s participation in art fairs has often been subsidised by government agencies such as the Australia Council and Austrade. As those funds have dried up, and private collectors visit less frequently, it has become harder to survive.
The gallerists are retaining the Gosbell Street address which will be used for contemporary art projects. There was always a determination that the building wouldn’t be turned into offices.
Freedman may not be as well known as her high-profile daughter, Mia, but she feels they have one thing in common. “With Stills I absolutely followed my passion. I was in love with photography. I loved the ideas, did my darkroom work and learnt how to develop photos as well. What Mia has done with magazines and on-line media grew out of a passionate interest as a consumer of those things. So yeah, when it comes to business there’s only one recommendation: follow your passion.”
Published in The Good Weekend, 24 June 2017