Alma mater
Simon Cuthbert
POP Gallery


It’s late afternoon on a Sunday in August and I’m in central Nipaluna / Hobart with Simon Cuthbert. It’s very cold, gently raining, the light is diffuse and shadowless. We’re on the corner of Cambpell and Bathurst street, sizing up the facade of the old Royal Exchange Hotel. Cuthbert has been closely monitoring the building over several months - sensitive to signs of imminent development. He’s recruited my assistance in photographing the hotel before it undergoes restoration; dignifying the shabby patina it’s earned over the past 100 years. Using a large format field camera – acquired from the old Forensic Imaging Unit of the Hobart Police – Cuthbert snaps two quick frames of the hotel. His technique is affectless and austere: muted lighting, formal framing, maximum focus, average exposure. These decisions are habitual and made ‘in camera’. His negatives and prints remain untouched in post-processing.

This “objective” approach to photography has been Cuthbert’s methodology for over thirty years. Honed by the rigours of museum photography - his ‘day job’ for just as long – Cuthbert is acutely attuned to the indexical force of the photographic image. In the world of the museum, the camera functions as a neutral mediator between subject and viewer, and the photographer’s influence is erased through strict adherence to technical uniformity. This creates a clean slate for historical interpretation (all subjects go through a kind of egalitarian visual flattening), and encourages an unbiased environment for collective memory to unfold. That said, the institution ultimately decides what is deemed worthy of the archive. Until, like Cuthbert, the photographer peels themselves from the constraints of the museum and starts to ‘choose’ their own subject matter; create their own archive; chart their own map of memory. In Cuthbert’s case, he has spent decades shaping a self-directed visual catalogue of our built environment; eschewing heroic narratives in favour of the forgotten and the neglected. He has done so with the precision of a scientist, the attitude of a journalist, and the heart of a poet.

Cuthbert’s architectural typologies are couched in well established photographic traditions from the late-20th Century. His work riffs off sensibilities developed by the Düsseldorf School of Photography; an art movement birthed through the teachings of Bernd and Hilla Becher in the mid 1970’s in Germany. Averse to the dominance of expressive and experimental photographic techniques at the time, the Becher’s encouraged an attitude of detached observation, technical precision, and extreme image detail. Their philosophy was akin to minimalism and ‘the readymades’ of Marcel Duchamp, and their preferred subject matter was the man-made world, the industrial, the engineered. 
They went on to educate and influence several generations of photographers, many now canonised giants in the field, including Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Edward Burtynsky, to name a handful. The school sought to elevate the status of photography to the heights of contemporary art. They wanted their photographs to compete with the scale, prestige and immutability of painting. They broadened our visual sensibilities to include the cold, non-human logic of the mechanical gaze, and the artificial environment it sprung from.

Cuthbert was studying at the Queensland College of Art (QCA) Seven Hills campus, here in Meanjin / Brisbane, around the same time that The Düsseldorf School’s star was rising internationally. Many of his generation were taught in this groundbreaking style, and have held steadfast to it - for good reason. Its capacity to exude authority is nearly unmatched. Its sovereign, dispassionate gaze rivals the concrete veracity of social documentary photography. Cuthbert leverages this powerful technique to train our attention toward the marginal places of our lives and awareness. The arresting detail and realism of his images court lengthy viewing often not afforded to such places in real life. We linger empathetically in front of his weary structures, witnessing their transmutation from architectural detritus into moving portraits. They speak of loss and the relentless melt of time. They are made in the spirit of 16th Century Momento Mori paintings - helping us face the inevitability of change and endings.

Cuthbert has lived to see his college campus transform into a ruin, yet although its material form has decayed, the energy and ideas seeded there continue to flower into the present day. Seven Hills was just one of many seasons at the QCA. The college finds its origins lying as far back as 1849, on Queen Street - it’s the oldest arts institution in Australia. For better or for worse, over time, we begin to trust that each iteration of the organism will mutate and adapt to meet the environmental conditions of the day. The Seven Hills closure pathed the way for my generation to enjoy world class facilities and art pedagogy. Many of the most efficacious educators teaching my cohort were trained at Seven Hills. Cuthbert’s work is a visual epitaph through which we may contemplate the significance and impermanence of place in our lives. This exhibition also gives pause to those of us who sense the shifting sands arriving again. How much longer will the current South Bank campus hold, and what might its next material evolution give way to?

Simon Cuthbert
Alma mater #5