Bill Brandt, Francis Bacon, Primrose Hill, 1963
Francis Bacon didn’t like this portrait of him by Bill Brandt. I can’t think why, it’s one of the Brandt’s best and he was a very good editorial portraitist. It does capture some of the bleakness of Bacon’s painting style.
The photograph was taken on Primrose Hill in London, apparently on a wintry day, with Brandt’s harsh tonality making it look like a charcoal drawing. The location can be found on Google Street View – this screenshot shows where the two greats stood to make the picture. Isn’t it odd that the cloud formation is so similar?
Fifteen years later, another notable artist was captured in the same spot, but this time it was an actor. In the television series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, from the book by John Le Carré, the great English actor Alec Guiness was filmed in a scene with the actor Terence Rigby. They are both senior spies discussing the political intrigues of the ‘circus,’ their nickname for the MI6 branch at Cambridge Circus in Central London.
Vienna, Virginia, circa 1920. “H.A. Money.” The undertaker Howard A. Money (1859-1931). National Photo Company Collection glass negative.
This strange photograph appeared on the vintage photo website Shorpy.com, always an entertaining way to waste some time. It records a Virginian undertaker in the early 20th century.
The frontal and symmetric composition has all the grace of a passport photo and it’s something you instinctively avoid in portraits as it looks gauche. The subject is dumped in the centre of the frame and stares back dumbly with no protective cover. It’s a style without rhetoric – there’s no posing from the sitter and no artistic flourish from the photographer.
Still, it has the advantage of a certain honesty. The subject is unguarded and more open, and the transaction with the photographer is more straightforward – just capture the likeness.
August Sander, the most august of all portrait photographers, occasionally employed this frontal pose, notably in the two examples below.
August Sander, The painter Anton Räderscheidt, Cologne, 1927
August Sander, Soldier, 1940
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare Saint Lazare, 1932
In late 2016 I made a pilgrimage to the Gare St Lazare, the Paris train station where Henri Cartier-Bresson made his fateful snap in 1932.
This was the first photograph that hit me with the potential of photography, that “light bulb moment”. Seeing it as a teenager at the old National Gallery of Victoria I thought to myself “Oh, so you can do this with photography.”
About where that man is walking, 24 year old Henri held his camera up against the fence and pressed the shutter just as an unknown man leapt across the puddle. It is a trivial moment captured for ever, with all the elements caught in a perfect equilibrium.
Greg Neville, John Gollings exhibition, 2017
Monash Gallery of Art, “the Australian home of photography,” has a retrospective exhibition of the work of John Gollings, our premier architectural photographer.
“The History of the Built World is the first major survey of Golling’s photographic practice, and offers a much anticipated opportunity to appreciate the full breadth of his unique photographic vision.”
It may seem a stretch to call it the history of the built world, but his subjects go back to aboriginal interventions in the environment of 28000 years ago – see photo above – and include ancient Indian structures and other antiquities along the way to contemporary architecture by Frank Gehry and others.
Golling’s approach has been consistent throughout his half-century career, to interpret a building’s structure and explain it in its own place and context. As a trained architect he understands design and form. The exhibition presents his photography as an illustrative craft, always in service to the client and the subject.
Gollings is also a spectacular entertainer. His vital images radiate energy and he employs every trick to achieve it: ultra-wide lenses to stretch space, natural and artificial light for colour gloss, and shameless vignetting to focus the eye on the glowing subject at the centre. In a sense, he combines the instincts of a Pictorialist – to make the picture and its subject an aesthetic object, and a modernist – to express the building’s deep structure. He is one of our indispensible photographic artists.
John Gollings: The history of the built world runs until March 4, 2018 at Monash Gallery of Art.
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?
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
Greg Neville, Sky over Taradale, 2017