Stanley Kubrick’s corset

                                 Stanley Kubrick, Chicago, 1949.

“Woman standing in office, smoking while modeling undergarments.” An early image from budding photojournalist and nascent filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. Look Magazine Photo Collection.”

So runs the caption for this bizarre photograph, taken by a 21 year old photographer and future film director. It may not be well known that Kubrick started out as a still photographer for the popular Look magazine. The photographs have been re-surfacing over the past few years.

The source for this one is the excellent Shorpy.com, an online archive of vintage photographs named after the young labourer in one of Lewis Hine’s industrial photographs. You can purchase prints from Shorpy.com including this one. Tempted?

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Henri Cartier-Bresson, painter

Painting by Henri Cartier-Bresson; a nude in the studio of André Lhote.            Oil on canvas, 1927

As a young man of 19, Henri Cartier-Bresson entered the Lhote Academy to study painting. The Academy was run by the Cubist painter André Lhote who wanted “to integrate the Cubists’ approach to reality with classical artistic forms.”

Lhote taught a strict regime of geometric analysis of form and employed ancient systems of proportion including the Golden Section. It was an academic approach that resulted in pictures of cool classicism with solid, structured compositions. Some Australian modernists studied at the Academy including Grace Crowley and Dorrit Black, as well as the famed Art Deco portraitist Tamara de Lempicka. I wonder if they met.

These two paintings are about all that is left of that period since Cartier-Bresson destroyed most of his early efforts. After his hunting sojourn in Africa, he turned his back on painting and applied his Lhote Academy skills to photography. His life’s work is marked by the sophistication of his compositions.

At about the same time he was making contact with the Surrealists, attending meetings that included André Breton and Salvador Dali. It is this contrasting influence on the young Cartier-Bresson that helps to explain the amazing sense of timing and coincidence that particularly marks his early work. “What fit in best with his own libertarian temperament and his endless marvel at the surprises of life, was surrealism’s recourse to intuition and spontaneity.” (artesmagazine.com)

                                       Henri Cartier-Bresson, Couple in Cambridge, 1928

William Eggleston at the NGV

William Eggleston Portraits is a significant show for Melbourne photographers, an opportunity to see one of the key postwar US photographers. It comes from London’s National Portrait Gallery where it had  a somewhat different form. At least in Melbourne it’s free.

Eggleston holds an ongoing influence for subsequent generations of photographers and artists. He is best known for his pioneering use of colour and images of suburban life in the Southern United States.

This exhibition is the first comprehensive museum exhibition devoted to Eggleston’s remarkable portraits. These works capture family, friends, casual acquaintances and strangers in a series of eloquent, poetic character studies and collectively form a social portrait of a time, place and way of life. (NGV)

                     William Eggleston, Untitled 1965-69

There is one remarkable photograph that stands out for me, an “essay” photograph, not just about the subject-matter but about photography itself. Like a Winogrand, it says something about the way a camera records the reality in front of it. On one level, it is a portrait of a handsome woman; on another it is a study in opposites; and on another it is a comment on race relations.

The woman is a strong and serious African American of the kind we are familiar with from black music of the 1960s (eg The Supremes) or photos of Civil Rights issues. She is neatly dressed in orange and brown colours that match her skin. Take her out of the picture and she’s still an impressive figure.

The two strangers pass each other in the street. One walks toward the camera, the other away from the camera. One is female, the other is male. One is young, the other is old. One is black, the other is white. One is dressed in colours, the other in black & white.

The man has lowered his black cardigan to reveal his white shirt which matches his skin colour. It makes a black/white shape, a signal to the viewer about the symbolic content of the photograph which inevitably is about race. Inevitably? Eggleston is a Southerner and some of his photographs note race relations in the South.

The photograph was made in the 1960s at the height of civil rights ferment. The man is ageing, his black and white clothes appear untidy and he’s leaving the space of the picture. The woman is young and well-dressed and is moving frontally into the foreground space. She looks straight into the camera. As I say, it’s an essay photograph.

Unlike a painting of the same subject-matter, none of this is planned or staged. It’s a grab shot, probably made on instinct at the spur of the moment. All of the above observations are after the fact, interpretations of something that does not intrinsically contain those ideas. That is the the thing with photography. As Winogrand, the master of the essay photograph, famously said, “I take photographs to see what things look like photographed.”

Ross Coulter at the NGV

Ross Coulter’s Audience is an installation of 400 black & white prints mounted in an orderly grid around the walls of the NGV’s small photography gallery. It’s part of the Festival of Photography. The arrangement makes you smile as you enter, it’s implausibly busy and abundant, until you realise the photographs all show one thing. Each 10×8 (darkroom) print shows visitors standing around in galleries, apparently staring at off-screen artworks. It’s really one subject multiplied four hundred times, although the artist shot in over seventy galleries.

Your own stance while looking at the prints mirrors the content of the photos, so there’s not much to see. The figures in the photos are standing around like you are, but the ‘joke’ is that the visitors in the prints are looking at nothing, they are staring at absent performance art that Coulter has asked them to imagine. They are in empty galleries.

Observing the visitors to the NGV itself, you can see the confusion and disappointment, there is not much to reward their attention, since the photos are echoes of themselves. They read the wall label then go back to try some more. All they see are people just like them, doing no more than they are. It’s a curious hall of mirrors.