Photographs taken in Kathmandu, Nepal for the exhibition Click for more photos

Pasupatinath, or The Rituals of Death

Photographs taken in Kathmandu, Nepal for the exhibition "Pasupatinath, or The Rituals of Death". Photo: Stephen Dupont

Competitions are the great driftnets of art. If you want to trawl through Australian photography to discover why artists such as Tamara Dean, Trent Parke and Stephen Dupont are attracting world attention, the Head On Portrait Prize and Photo Festival is a good start.

Australian photography is in an ebullient state and the Head On festival offers access into this contained explosion of creativity.

From humble beginnings as founder Moshe Rosenzveig's response to Lady Mary Fairfax's short-lived photographic award at the Art Gallery of NSW, the Head On festival has expanded into arguably Australia's most diverse community-based photo festival, with more than 150 exhibitions.

"Elizabeth I" by Alexia Sinclair

Regal piece … Elizabeth I by Alexia Sinclair.

The festival, which opens on Friday, explores artistic ironies and verities in exhibitions throughout Sydney that broadly celebrate documentary observation and sheer visual invention. The festival also reflects another facet of contemporary photography, the evenness of the gender divide. No longer is the professional camera wielded in a primarily blokey world.

Australian fine-art photography divides between those practising pure observation and artists constructing their images; between photographers recording unmanipulated life and others who either direct, assemble or digitally fabricate their pictures. As if to underline this gulf, two artists with opposite approaches are exhibiting at Customs House at Circular Quay.

In documenting Lake Eyre's rain-enhanced rebirth in simple, almost abstract colour compositions, Peter Elfes renders the remote inland lake as if it were the opalescent skin of a great, sleeping beast. Elfes's pictures embrace realist traditions established by Richard Woldendorp, David Moore and, more recently, David Flanagan (whose sensual black-and-white aerial landscapes can be seen at Meyer Gallery@Syndicate in Danks Street, Waterloo). These contrast with Alexia Sinclair's lush, staged portraits that re-create how the regal men and women of history may have looked. Sinclair uses every modern device available, from Photoshop's digital wizardry to carefully chosen models, garments and sets in order to reanimate two dozen regal heroes and villains.

Defining the landscape has always dominated Australian art and Head On addresses this issue, displaying well-known social observer William Yang's recent, inventive explorations into landscape photography. Yang sequences pairs of black-and-white images to great effect in his display at Maunsell Wickes.

Head On also acknowledges the importance of mentoring photographers, with galvanising speakers such as David Alan Harvey, from Magnum Photos, appearing at the Bondi Pavilion and the Art Gallery of NSW. Recognition of documentary photography as fine art has been behind much of the success of Magnum Photos. Realising the digital era had provoked a decline in their heartland of print media, diminishing their traditional markets, Magnum Photos mounted an expansive exhibition program at eminent retail spaces such as New York's Gagosian Gallery. Such a presence of Magnum Photos confirmed the US art market's acceptance of documentary images (from Magnum's peerless, six-decade archive) as fine art.

In evolving from a successful portrait competition to a festival, Head On has been careful to address many of today's social and artistic issues. Birth, dying and death have, for example, absorbed the attention of Kelly McIlvenny in her display Welcome Labour Room: The Story of Maternal Health in Nepal at Airport North Gallery, while the eminent Australian photojournalist Stephen Dupont, a veteran of 13 years covering war in Afghanistan, unblinkingly explores terminal truths in Rituals of Death, showing at TAFE's Sydney Institute of Photography (see story, right).

Head On also features exhibitions involving visitor and artist. At Tali Gallery, Rozelle, for example, indigenous artists, curators and media graduates from the remote Yolngu Aboriginal community collectively complete a rite of passage by presenting their group show. Customs House will host Jagath Dheerasekara's Manuwangku, Under the Nuclear Cloud, the environmental issue nobody wants in their backyard.

The Head On festival is an artistic marathon to challenge and reward lovers of fine photography.

For the full program go to headon.com.au.

Correction: The original version of this story said that Jagath Dheerasekara's Manuwangku, Under the Nuclear Cloud was on at the Museum of Contemporary Art.