Wes Stacey’s monumental series The Road is currently showing at Monash Gallery of Art in a curated group exhibition called … The Road. He shares the gallery with photographers like Tim Handfield and Mickey Allen who in the 1970s and 80s also explored the immense subject of Australia’s highways and suburbs.
The Monash outer-suburban venue is appropriate for this outward gaze. Gallery director Shaune Lakin states, The origins of Monash Gallery of Art rest in the golden age of automotive travel in Australia. Relatively cheap and accessible petrol, increased private car ownership, and a vastly improved network of roads encouraged the suburban expansion of Melbourne.
Stacey’s Road is a series of more than three hundred amateur-style snaps taken out of the window of his Kombi van as he criss-crossed the continent in 1973-74. I say amateur-style, but they are not amateurish, they spring from a sophisticated eye that echoes the bland conceptual indexes of Ed Ruscha’s as well as the tight modernism of Stephen Shore and William Eggleston. Those photographers were emerging at the time of Stacey’s journey’s and it’s likely that Stacey’s project would have been well received in their circles in 1970s America.
The project was shown at the new Australian Centre for Photography in 1975 and later at the National Gallery in Canberra. It was well received. John Szarkowski, legendary curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art who was visiting Sydney, described the work as “the most radical he had seen in Australia.” That is an interesting footnote to the history of contemporary photography in this country, because at that time he was promoting the controversial Eggleston and the movement later known as “the New Colour Photography”.
Photography as a contemporary art was a new proposition then. Today, Stacey’s Road seems very contemporary, easily slotting into familiar categories of serial art, pop culture subjects, colour photography and the snapshot aesthetic. But in 1975?