In the 1980s, the Monash Gallery of Art decided to dedicate its collection of works solely to Australian photography. Anouska Phizacklea has been director of the gallery for about a year, and the biggest eye-opener for her has been the size and depth of the collection at her disposal. It’s the only gallery in the country with a collection focused entirely on Australian photography – and Phizacklea wanted to curate a show that celebrates it.

“Half the collection is from donations,” she says, “and it’s grown steadily over the years.”

All the big hitters are here: Bill Henson, Polly Borland, Rennie Ellis and Max Dupain. Carol Jerrems’s prints are also part of the stockpile. The photographer – one of the first women photographers in the country to have work acquired by national and state institutions, including the National Gallery of Australia – was a key voice in capturing Melbourne’s youth subculture during the ’70s. Some of her best work is here, including Girl amongst leaves (1976) and the three semi-nudes that comprise Vale Street (1975).

The remit of Australian photography is huge, and the collection reflects that. “But these images work together,” says Phizacklea. “They tell a story together. It’s about trying to tease out the threads that unite these voices.

“It’s great being able to tell these Australian stories, which are often buried.”

To that end the show delves back to the beginnings of photography, including early family portraits, through the wars, through to the waves of migration that helped build and evolve our national identity.

“To see them together, you really get a feel for the power of these works,” says Phizacklea. “So intimate and beautiful.”

Legacy is at Monash Gallery of Art until September 19.