In Your Words – The Robinson Project

Catalogue essay by Erin Wilson, from the exhibition In Your Words on at Devonport Regional Gallery until 24th February 2019

In Your Words grid
Photographs by Bert and Albert Robinson, from the Robinson Collection

If I was to ask anyone familiar with the Robinson Collection to describe to me what it was, I believe most would say it is a collection of historic black and white photographs. This has been the public face of the Robinson Collection over the past twenty years, as photographic prints of the collection have been displayed annually in the Gallery. However, as the Curator of this magnificent collection, I would describe it slightly differently. To begin with, I would say this is a collection of photographic negatives – because it is in fact an archive of tens of thousands of negatives, rather than photographs, from the Robinson & Son Photographic Studio.

There is something special about archives, which rouses an entirely different experience than viewing fragments of archives, already interpreted, arranged and presented in a museum or gallery. While the photographic prints can be highly evocative, I have witnessed how viewing the archive itself can evoke an entirely different reaction. When the Robinson Collection is described by the period or region it covers, or the number of negatives it contains, it is still somewhat abstract. However, standing in front of row upon row, shelf upon shelf of archival boxes each containing hundreds of negatives; holding original, yellowing Kodak boxes; or catching the distinct smell of the nitrate negatives, has a power of its own. It is only when going to the source of the archive that you can get a sense of the magnitude of this collection, both in its scale and historical value.

For each negative selected and displayed in the Gallery, there are thousands of others that have only been seen by a few sets of eyes. My interest as the Curator of this collection lies in what is hidden and what is absent, and the potential of bridging these gaps. As this collection is cared for and displayed in an art gallery, there is a tendency to treat the photographs as fine art objects – particularly when so many are visually powerful and beautiful. However, these photographs were the snapshots of the day when owning a personal camera was rare, and this task lay with commercial studio photographers. It is significant that the Robinsons were commercial studio photographers – their aim was never to holistically capture life in the region, and as such the collection is not a complete or comprehensive historical record.

However, I do not see this incompleteness as a shortcoming, but as a starting point with immeasurable potential. What this incompleteness means is that the value of this collection is not limited to the physical archive. This collection already extends beyond the Gallery’s archive. Each of these negatives existed to produce an original print, and these original prints can still be found in countless photo albums and on living room walls across the region. What has become clear to me in considering this incompleteness is that the Robinson Collection is not only an amazing resource for the community, but likewise, the community are an invaluable resource for the Robinson Collection. These photographs capture snippets of a time now passed, but the knowledge of those times lies in the experiences and memories of those who lived them.

As such, I have begun a project which aims to strengthen the connection between the Robinson archive and its community. Traditionally, a Curator will select pieces from a collection for display in a gallery, and community members will visit the gallery to view the selected pieces. My aim is to disrupt this linear approach, so that the archive itself becomes more accessible, and the gallery is as much a site for the community to share their knowledge as it is for gaining knowledge. This desire is taking form in the design of a series of collaborative curatorial experiments under the banner of ‘The Robinson Project’. The first iteration, this exhibition, is titled In Your Words. This exhibition has been the first step in connecting members of the community directly with this archive: members of the community who lived and worked in Devonport and its surrounds in the period the Robinsons were photographing, whose knowledge and memories of this period are invaluable – and need to be recorded.

As I mentioned earlier, for every photograph displayed, thousands are not. It is important to critically examine what is shown, what is not, and how this process of selection could be approached differently. As such, for this exhibition I engaged nine members of different parts of the community, and their stories, as the starting point: simple stories from each about their lives and experiences in Devonport, which will be beautifully familiar and nostalgic for some, and a unique insight into a time now passed for others. After sharing these stories, each went through the archive to find photographs to pair with these stories; photographs which then played their own role, eliciting more memories and details to add to the richness of the stories told.

The experience of approaching the collection in this way, through the stories and perspectives of those who lived the archive, reinforced for me the limitations of individual curators such as myself speaking on behalf of the collection. There are countless simple, but important examples. If it were not for this process, I would have believed the Fruit Palace was simply a fruit shop – a reasonable assumption given the window display of fruit in the photograph. Without speaking with Judy and Joe I would never have known that there was a milk bar out the back that was the place to be for local high school students on a Friday night in the 60s. Similarly, without speaking to Janice about the fire station or Arden about the Haines whistle, I wouldn’t have any awareness of some of the sounds of Devonport which could never be captured in a photograph – nor would many others viewing these photographs.

The experience of gaining different perspectives on life in the region is also an invaluable result of this approach. This could be as simple as two perspectives of the same photograph or event, such as the Devonport Show, which Bill called for 17 years, and Stephen recounted attending as a child. Or more broadly, insights into the different experiences of Helen in East Devonport, Pat in Quoiba and Jim in William Street, who despite the differences in their childhoods each vividly recounted fond memories of Saturdays spent at the Star Theatre. Each of these personal recollections are made more vivid because of the Robinson photographs, yet also bring these images to life in a new way.

As you walk through the exhibition or read through the following pages, viewing these Robinson images and listening to the voices of those who have shared their stories, I hope you too are moved by the power of these simple but beautiful stories, and see the potential that lies in activating this archive as a site of shared memories, stories and the self-representation of the people of this region.

– Erin Wilson

*The Robinson Project is a series of collaborative curatorial projects involving community members and Curator Erin Wilson

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On the move

It is obvious, the local community is greatly attached to the Gallery at Stewart Street. I have been asked countless times why it needs to move. The saying goes, “if I had a dollar for every time I was asked.” The answer is quite simple. Undeniably, the Stewart Street Gallery is a striking building with outstanding features such as the vaulted ceiling, but it is severely lacking in the most practical aspects for an art gallery.

When receiving one recent exhibition, Play On: The Art of Sport / Ten Years of the Basil Sellars Art Prize, two of the crates did not fit through the door. To make matters worse it was raining. Unpacking crates on the street is not a good look at the best of times and is simply out of the question in the rain.

Stewart Street has no loading bay on the street frontage, let alone attached to the building. Delivery vehicles hope that there is an empty space out the front or risk a fine by parking in the bus zone. There are no amenities in the building and patrons are asked to use the public toilets outside. There is no storage and the entrance would be non-compliant by today’s standards. Unseen by patrons, is the cramped office environment that is either sweltering in summer or freezing in winter.

When I worked at the Gallery in 2009, a feasibility study was being undertaken for an extension. This was not the first study. Vast improvements have been made to the building, but not to the extent to resolve some of the fundamental requirements for a regional gallery.

The move to the paranaple arts centre in Rooke Street is a giant leap forward. Not only does it address the shortcomings of Stewart Street (access, climate control, storage, public amenities, etc.) it also results in significant gains in exhibition space – which is really all the patron should be concerned with. The patron does not want to know about loading bays…

Stewart Street has approximately 140 square metres of floor space and with the built alcoves out of ‘temporary’ walls, has approximately 70 running metres of running wall space. The new Gallery will have just on 300 square metres of floorspace and approximately 116 running metres of wall space.

In addition is a 60 square metre room we are calling the Creative Space. It is a serviceable space to conduct workshops, hold meetings or use an exhibition space if necessary.

I have the pleasure of wearing a hardhat and safety vest to undertake a fortnightly site-visit. It makes an arts and culture guy feel rather manly. Each time I visit the construction site I get a better sense for the space. Last week the walls were lined. Soon it will be painted throughout. Then the carpet, joinery and finishing touches.

We will open on Friday 2 November with the opening of Tidal: City of Devonport Art Award. I cannot think of a more appropriate exhibition. Tidal is a highlight of our calendar that brings some of the most interesting contemporary work from throughout Australia to public view in Devonport.

The exhibition responds to the theme of tidal coastal living, characteristic of our region. We will also be opening with an exhibition from our Robinson Collection. Our Curator Erin Wilson has been working diligently to collate a series of fascinating oral histories in relation to images from the Robinson Collection.

In Your Words: The Robinson Project contains over 100,000 photographic negatives capturing the social and commercial life in the region during the 20th century. It has opened this extensive collection to members of the Devonport community, who have explored the archive, selected negatives that resonate with them, and recorded oral histories elicited by these photographs.

In Your Words exhibition will bring together thirty photographs selected by nine members of the Devonport community, presented alongside oral history excerpts, both text and audio, through which they share their memories and stories of the region, in their own words.

I am looking forward to the move. It will bring together staff from our Gallery, Theatre and Visitor Information Centre into the one building and operation. It will result in a team of people capable of delivering unknown potential. The possibilities for the future look very exciting.

~ Geoffrey Dobson, Convention & Arts Director

Paranaple Arts Centre

Images:
Allan Francis, Baptist Church once; Art Gallery now 1987, from Homes of Devon 6: Open House, b&w photograph, DCC Permanent Collection, acc. 1987.029
Courthouse, Devonport, n.d. The Robinson Collection, R5844, DCC Permanent Collection

Past & Present Tense : 20 years of the Robinson Collection

Bert Robinson Studio, Circa 1930, Robinson Collection R2735.1
Bert Robinson’s Studio, c.1930, R2735.1

Susan Sontag, in her discussion of the inventory of photography since 1839, noted that seemingly everything has been captured in a photograph. This must certainly have seemed the case when twenty years ago, in 1997, Keri Whiteley set about curating the first exhibition of photographic prints from the Robinson Collection, Robinson & Son: A Photographic Studio, for Devonport Regional Gallery. This inaugural exhibition provided the public with their first glimpse into the tens of thousands of photographs taken by Bert and Albert Robinson in North-West Tasmania, over a 50-year period during the mid-20th century.

Over the past twenty years, Devonport Regional Gallery has held sixteen Robinson Collection exhibitions that have collectively served as a window into life on the North-West Coast of Tasmania during the 20th century. Through these exhibitions, the Robinson Collection continues to be a source of intrigue, nostalgia and reverence for Gallery staff, community members and visitors alike. Past & Present Tense features a selection of photographic prints from each Robinson exhibition to date, accompanied by reflections from artists, curators, researchers, volunteers and others who have come to know the collection over the past two decades. Past & Present Tense also prompts visitors to reflect on the value of this collection, and share their ideas for the next chapter of the Robinson archive.

-Erin Wilson, Curator

Each of the images below has been selected by someone who has come to know the collection; each sharing why this photograph has resonated with them.

 

Bert Robinson, date unknown, Robinson Collection R1360
Bert Robinson, date unknown, R1360

‘This beautifully framed photo of Pop was taken by my father; it captures a relaxed Bluff Beach with his lifesaver mates. I’m unsure if Dad orchestrated his father’s quizzical look or pop heard noises behind him, but I love that in 2017, I am still able to access this intimate moment.’

-Dave Robinson, son of Albert Robinson

 

R1643.1North Fenton Street, Devonport, 1942 cat
North Fenton Street, Devonport 1942, R1643.1

‘Some of the most fascinating images are those cloaked in obscurity – such as this funeral procession along one of Devonport’s suburban streets. We can look at such images as something outside of and beyond our own reality, but equally, they permit a personal, and at times confronting, avenue through which to consider social assumptions and cultural practices. ‘

-Alison Savage, Guest Curator, Tales from Suburbia 2011

 

YORK, 1930, Robinson Collection R82
YORK, 1930, R82

‘The act of art making and what we respond to, that image that makes one stop, fascinates me. This image reminds me of my grandmother, her garden, and the energy she would deliver to this space.  The last time I saw her I was four. She was a kind, generous person.  That is why I remember her so vividly.’

-Lisa Garland, Artist ReViewing 2015

 

Rodneys Bus Line_09-06-17
Motors Pty Ltd, Russell’s Buses, 1948, R3190.6
(Left to right) Taxi Driver; J.E. (Jack) Russell, Bus Drivers; Stan Willie, Raymond Russell, Jim Blanche, Ralph Williams, Billy Marquis, Leo Smith, Gordon Russell.

‘The photo is of my grandfather John Russell with his fleet of buses and hire car. The photo was taken at the Bluff together with two of his sons and other drivers. Typical of the time the drivers are wearing dust coats. Note the stone border in the foreground, long gone.’

Rodney Russell, Robinson Collection volunteer from 1993

 

R4494 Car travelling along road, orchard area, 1936 cat
Car Travelling along road, orchard area, 1936, R4494

‘Seeing this photograph for me recalled Lloyd Rees’ painting The Road to Berry (1946–47). The elevation, the angle of the road and the framing of Rees’ work stayed with me as an exercise of precision and poetry, and was recalled many times in the North-West Tasmanian landscape. For me, the Robinson image is its precursor.’

-Dunja Rmandic, Curator of Collections 2013-2015

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Past & Present Tense : 20 years of the Robinson Collection is on display at Devonport Regional Gallery until 27 August 2017.

For more information on the Devonport City Council Permanent Collection, visit the Devonport Regional Gallery website.