Helen Ennis

The ABR Podcast 

Released every Thursday, the ABR podcast features our finest reviews, poetry, fiction, interviews, and commentary.

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Beejay Silcox

Episode #92

‘Those shelves have power’

Beejay Silcox on Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller by Nadia Wassef

‍In 2002, Nadia Wassef founded – with her sister, Hind, and their friend, Nihal – the Cairo-based independent bookstore Diwan. Wassef’s memoir, Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller, is a record of the setbacks and success of the store’s creation, while also an insight into a nation simmering with revolutionary politics. In today’s episode, ABR critic Beejay Silcox, who spent several years living in Egypt, describes in a personal review how she stumbled upon Diwan on her first night in Cairo: ‘a pocket of alphabetised calm in the city’s ever-roiling chaos’.




Recent episodes:

The Australian modernist photographer Max Dupain is commonly known for his sweltering photograph Sunbaker, which offered the nation one of its most iconic beach images. In today’s episode, Helen Ennis reads her essay ‘Max Dupain’s dilemmas’, which was commended in the 2021 Calibre Essay Prize. It explores the breadth of Dupain’s work beyond Sunbaker, as well as his own grapplings with self-doubt and his complicated perspectives on life and travel.

Helen Ennis is Emeritus Professor at the ANU Centre for Art History and Art Theory and a past ABR Fellow. She is an independent photography curator and writer specialising in the area of Australian photographic practice. She is currently writing a biography of Max Dupain.

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Max Dupain, one of Australia’s most accomplished photographers, was filled with self-doubt. He told us so – repeatedly – in public commentary, especially during the 1980s, in the last years of his life. It is striking how candid he was, how personal, verging on the confessional, and how little attention we paid to what he said, either during his lifetime or since (he died in 1992, aged eighty-one).

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A lover of photography since childhood, by the time Olive Cotton, who was born in Sydney in 1911, was in her twenties she was already creating the pictures that were to define her as one of Australia’s foremost women photographers, although this would not be acknowledged until the 1980s. Apart from the photographs she made, Cotton left little material trace of a life that spanned nine decades (she died in 2003). This lack of physical evidence presented a challenge for biographer Helen Ennis, a former curator of photography at the National Gallery of Australia and an art historian, who has nonetheless managed to weave a compelling, if at times diaphanous, narrative.

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Vivian Maier has received the kind of attention most photographers and artists can only dream of – multiple monographs, documentary films, commercial gallery representation, extraordinary public interest, and now a biography. However, all this activity and acclaim has occurred posthumously. In her lifetime ...

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This exhibition has a clear aim – to prove that Robert Mapplethorpe ‘is among the most significant artist of his time’. The evidence marshalled by the curators at the Los Angeles Country Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum is substantial. They have conducted extensive research, sourced outstanding vintage prints ...

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One of the big attractions of this book is the portraits and self-portraits of the photographers who are its subject. Diane Arbus, in the early stages of pregnancy, looks whimsically at her reflection in a full-length mirror; Robert Mapplethorpe's face leaps out of the darkness, paired with his skull-topped walking stick; Margaret Bourke-White perches with her camer ...

Helen Ennis writes at length about the great modernist photographer Olive Cotton and her second marriage to Ross McInerney, which took her far from the art world – and from her art. ... (read more)

Everyone, I suspect, has a favourite photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson. Mine shows two couples picnicking beside what I have always thought was the Marne River but turns out to be somewhere else altogether. Juvisy (1938), as it is now titled, depicts urban workers relaxing near a man-made pond in the suburbs of Paris. This is indicative of the exhaustive research of Peter Galassi and his colleagues, who have brought to light a huge amount of new information on Cartier-Bresson and his photographs. Their book has been published to accompany a Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where Galassi is chief curator of photography.

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One section on Australian photography slowly growing on my bookshelves is devoted to anthropological and ethnographic photography. Philip Jones’s latest book, Images of the Interior: Seven Central Australian Photographers, belongs there because of the amount of anthropological material it contains. But it could also take its place among books devoted to vernacular photography, because none of the seven photographers Jones has selected was professionally trained. All were keen amateur photographers who produced substantial bodies of work during the time they lived and worked in Central Australia. The book deals with an epoch of dramatic change, beginning in the 1890s with some of the earliest European photographs of the Centre, and concluding in the 1940s.

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Wolfgang Sievers was a complex person with a clear vision. The major dimensions of his life included photography and an abiding sense of the dignity of man. Helen Ennis, one of the foremost authorities on Sievers, has produced a book that is at once satisfying and teasing.

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