September 17, 2015


Editor’s note: We’re very pleased to publish Kirsten Rann’s excellent piece on the inaugural Maggie Diaz Photography Prize for Women.  This stunning and important exhibition is on display at BRIGHTSPACE, 8 Martin Street, St Kilda until 19 September. There were 227 photographs submitted for the prize and the 1st prize of $5,000 was announced at the opening. Patrons may still vote for the $1000 People’s Choice Award until 19 Sept. Due to the recent sudden passing of BRIGHTSPACE Director and photographer Martin Kantor,  an award was initiated in his honour and was also presented at the exhibition opening.  We urge you to visit BRIGHTSPACE on the final days of this beautiful exhibition.


An exhibition of finalists’ work in the inaugural Maggie Diaz Photography Prize for Women is currently installed in the second gallery at Brightspace in St Kilda.

This is introduced by first passing through Maggie Diaz Projects in the front gallery, a small retrospective of Diaz’s photographs comprised mostly of photographs she took in and around St Kilda during the 1960s through to the 80s alongside two images of her Gardenvale studio, five earlier photographs taken in 1950s Chicago, and a small black-and-white portrait of the almost (now) 90-year-old St Kilda resident, Diaz herself, taken by David Carswell.



A known social documentary photographer who left a burgeoning career (and a husband) in the USA to arrive in Melbourne, Australia, in 1961, Diaz soon established a strong career identity here.

All her works in the exhibition are black-and-white, compositionally spot on, and her resolutely compassionate nature shows in the creative framing of her subjects in their selectively chosen or positioned “backgrounds”; mostly people in various situations and surrounds – from housing projects in Chicago to Brotherhood of St Laurence residents in Melbourne to figures in high (and not-so-high) society clubs, Italian migrant men working on a railway, models, actors, writers, musicians and so forth, and friends in both in the USA and Australia.

Her “backgrounding” invariably reveals something of the people, times and places she photographed. And bar her commercial and studio photos, Diaz became known for creatively using “available light” rather than any man-made or directed lighting to enhance this.

The significance of her work warrants her archive being housed in the State Library of Victoria, alongside works that are in collections such as the National Library of Australia and the National Gallery of Australia.

In Brightspace’s new media gallery we get some insight into the depth of her career in I don’t do sweet, a 38-minute documentary of Diaz at La Mama talking briefly to an audience about each of her photographs as they appear in a slideshow – from her early days in America through to her recent Australian work. Its fascinating!

In a time when gender preferencing is sometimes considered old-fashioned, unfashionable, or even inappropriate, there is still a need to encourage equality for women in most fields, and in photography – and social documentary photography – in particular.

With such a significant role model, founding director Martin Kantor and his Brightspace crew realized the importance of setting up the Diaz prize for female photographers, with the condition that they also use “available light”.  There are some works that are absolute stand-outs in this exhibition, and hopefully more women are inspired to go where few have gone before.

Selected from over 200 entries, the exhibition comprises a range of subjects in both black-and-white and colour photographs by the 35 finalists.

While many are basically ‘portraits’, apart from the compositionally interesting Viriginia Creeper – a grey-haired women sitting on the side of an empty blue-tiled and white-painted pool with the red leaves of a vine running prettily across, or having fallen along, the white-painted brick wall behind her – there are a few works I would describe as being possible contemporary extensions of Diaz’s methodology and approach to her subject(s) as described above.

One of the strongest of these is Meg Hewitt’s “Man with a Giraffe” – a Magnum-like grainy black-and-white image of a giraffe’s neck and (partial) head stretching across and down the upper third of the photograph to eat its feed while a person wearing a ‘hoody’ stands below and in front, back to the viewer, observing (one assumes) the giraffe through the lower two thirds of the window that frames both individuals. It harks back to Diaz’s image of an elephant trainer and his small son standing in front of several elephants in the previous gallery, though Hewitt’s human subject is faceless and hence unidentifiable.

The second most Diaz-like image, “Last light”, is a colour photo of a group of people waking across a road on the top of a hill, with a full sunset sky behind them so they appear only as dark silhouettes. Framed on one side by palm trees and on the other by part of an older building with cars parked along the inclining street that runs in front, one assumes its in St Kilda, but I cannot be sure.

The winning photograph is titled Lost in Paris, an abstract architectural composition with its muted tones and textures of concrete surfaces – the ground and corner of a built-in concrete ping-pong table sitting in front of a wall with a centrally placed, subtly embedded section of grid – in a modern area of Paris, sans people. I am not sure it could be considered a Diaz like subject, but its use of “available light” enhances the tones and textures of the image captured.

There is a beautiful and sad story behind these exhibitions. The aforementioned Martin Kantor, a photographer himself, and a generous supporter of the arts, played a pivotal role in enabling Diaz’s retrospective out of which the founding of a prize for female photographers in her name evolved. Passing only weeks before these exhibitions opened, the Martin Kantor Special Honour Award was established in his memory.

The winning work – Catherine van Wilenburg’s Whitefella Shadow Series – Blue Blurr Daisy – was selected by Brightspace director Kylie Greer because she noticed Martin repeatedly returning to it in the entries folder: the shadow of a person’s head and shoulders cast on a sunny section of wild grassland with three yellow-centered ‘blue’ daises and ‘ribbons’ of bark so poignantly positioned within or edging against the shadow. It’s spookily as though Martin’s being captured by this delicate image had a double meaning, as if his residual presence, his ‘shadow’, and his love of nature are kind of represented together in this delicate image.

© Kirsten Rann,  September 2015

One Comment

  1. Stan Jarin

    September 18, 2015 at 2:52 am

    Looks good!

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