Composing Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia is playing at the Astor cinema for a limited season and if you see it there you will never forget the experience. It’s probably lookimg better than on its release in 1962 because after its restoration and digital transfer this year, there are no scratches or dust or colour mis-matches. The image is so clean you can see that Anthony Quinn’s false nose does not quite match the colour of his face!

As a visual artist (still photographer, painter) you can learn from movies to see how problems of composition, colour, scale etc are solved. One of the challenges faced by cinematographer Freddie Young and director David Lean was how to fill the extreme Super-Panavision film format.

At a ratio of 1:2.2 it’s the longest screen format of all and presented extreme compositional challenges, and opportunities. Despite the long horizontal span of the format, the filmmakers were able to create taut compositions in the huge scale of the landscape.

The focal point is on both the vertical and horizontal centres.

No shot in his entire career aroused so much comment as the scene when Omar Sharif emerged from a mirage – achieved with a unique 430mm telephoto lens he had had the foresight to bring with him from Panavision in America. (

Linkage between left, right and middle.

The minimalism of the desert shots was partly determined by the subject. As the Prince Feisal character states, ” There is nothing in the desert.”  The insistent horizon line and flat blue skies created a ready made design, but the filmmakers embraced it, creating a new, painterly image of the desert.

Symmetrical composition

The film looks so modern it was seemingly inspired by contemporary abstract art. The indulgence in pure flat colour and graphic compositions is noticeable, especially in comparison to other comparable films. Another British desert film made only four years earlier, Ice Cold in Alex, has none of the geometric starkness of Lawrence. Lean and his cinematographer Freddie Young imbued their film with a very modern, even modernist, visual sense.

Geometric abstract composition


Obama and Fairey

A.P. photograph of Obama by Mannie Garcia and poster by Shepard Fairey (image from

Artist Shepard Fairey has received a sentence of two years’ probation and a $25,000 fine in the Barack Obama/Hope poster case. Fairey had used an Associated Press photo of Obama, taken in 2006 by photographer Mannie Garcia. He had given no copyright credit to the photograph and destroyed incriminating evidence. He was lucky to avoid jail time. Fairey also had to pay $1.6 million compensation to A.P. and presumably court costs on top. See The Guardian for details.

Shepard Fairey first came to attention in the 1990s through his Obey the Giant street art which became a sensation. He has turned that success into a multi-million dollar business ( $7 million in 2009) employing over 100 people.

The photographer, Garcia, has been lost in all the controversy but he is a story himself. He was nearly killed by flying shrapnel while photographing the 1988 Ramstein air disaster, covered wars in Somalia and Bosnia in the 1990s, and in 2011 was roughed up by Maryland cops while shooting a police incident.

Perhaps his most historic photo was the shot of President Bush looking down at the Hurricane Katrina destruction of New Orleans from the safe altitude of Air Force One. I remember that one. It helped to destroy Bush as president.

You could say without exaggeration that Garcia directly helped to get rid of one president and elect another. That’s a story.

Stezaker wins prize

John Stezaker, Pair IV, 2007

British artist John Stezaker has won the £30,000 Deutsche Börse photography prize, run by London’s Photographers Gallery. Though not practising as a photographer the judges deemed his work photography and awarded the prize arguing that “he has found his way to use photography to reveal the subversive force of the image.”

As an art student, Stezaker read Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious and thought there might be a social version of it within the media. “I needed to evolve an art that was engaged with the momentous circulation of imagery. I found a way of intervening in that and revealing something about what had become a sort of collective unconscious.”

Stezaker, who lectures in art history at the Royal College of Art, sees his work in the context of Duchamp and his idea of ‘found’ art. He scours markets and secondhand bookshops for old photographs and postcards and collages them to create new meanings. His work is an “interruption” in the flow of media images in society,

“I see the cut as a decisive interruption in that flow. How do you inscribe on this flowing away of the world around you? How do you do something that’s fixed and has the quality of ‘contouredness’ that art requires for an image to become an imaginary possibility?”


On Edge

Dianna Wells, Untitled (Epping) 2012

Edmund Pearce gallery has an exhibition by Dianna Wells of photographs that explore the urban fringe. There is a zone at the perimeter of every city where the suburbs lose their solidity and shade off into the rural. In a constantly growing metropolis that region is always moving further out, like a cancer. But for a time, it’s something you can pinpoint, and that’s what Wells does.

When driving out of Melbourne I’m always looking for ‘the edge’, the moment of transition from urban to country. On Edge documents the tension point between the old pastoral and the new urban, the change to the environment and the telling detail on the ground.

The terrific photograph above, an exemplary composition of geometric forms, shows the confrontation between ‘tar and cement’ and the mystical, eternal Australian bush. It’s an encounter between two time dimensions.

Dianna Wells is a graphic designer completing a Masters degree at Monash University. Her website is


The art of the sausage

Claus Goedicke, Some Things, 2008

Claus Goedicke is a German photographer whose project Some Things looks like an advertising catalogue but with household objects instead of products. They are well made still-lifes with an absurd mock-serious attitude, raising the sausage and potato to high art.

Goedicke was a Masters student of Bernd Becher at the Dusseldorf Academy, so he is part of that elite of German photographers that includes Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff. Elite is the right word when you consider that a print of Gursky’s Rhine II recently sold for $4.3 million dollars, the highest price ever paid for a photograph. Goedicke’s images carry on the main elements of the Becher tradition: the deadpan stare, the serial accumulation of things, the typology of objects, and the flawless technique. (It’s no wonder Dusseldorf is called an Academy).

The series can be seen at the M Bochum gallery and at fiedler tauber contemporary.


GoPro in free fall

The GoPro digital video camera is all the rage with adventurers for its compact size, toughness and image quality. They attach it to their motorbikes, skis and skateboards to record stunning wide angle video of their sport. The camera is tiny but it records high definition video in a 170˚ angle of view.

Sky diver Lucas Damm was jumping out of a plane at 12000 feet when his GoPro came off his helmet. The camera spiralled to the ground, filming all the time. When it landed, the tough little camera just went on recording – including sound – as if nothing unusual had happened!

Play the video but hold the pause button from time to time to see amazing distorted landscapes.

Peta Pixel has a full report.

Glitch Art

“Glitch art is the aestheticization of digital or analog errors, such as artifacts and other “bugs”, by either corrupting digital code/data or by physically manipulating electronic devices “ -Wikipedia.

This definition doesn’t suggest that accidental glitches are art, but I suppose in a Duchampian sense, if I name it art, it is art. This photograph was a straightforward Jpeg until I did something to it – I wish I could remember what.

But what a wonderful fluke. It gives the building a wildness it clearly needs. It’s the Newburn flats by Frederick Romberg, master architect of functionaist Modernism in Melbourne, a sober style that really needs to let it’s hair down.


New image of 9/11

The most photographed event in the Western world, the 9/11 attack on the twin towers, has been given a new perspective. After all the intense and frightening ground level photographs, a shot taken hundreds of miles away gives a different view. Astronaut Frank Culbertson was in the orbiting Space Station as the attacks were taking place on the ground. He was informed about it from Earth just as he was coming overhead.

The smoke seemed to have an odd bloom to it at the base of the column that was streaming south of the city. After reading one of the news articles we just received, I believe we were looking at NY around the time of, or shortly after, the collapse of the second tower. Read here.

Am I the only person to see a face in this photograph, the evil spirit of that morning?


Concrete Photography

Gottfried Jäger, Foto object 1998I

The Latin origin of the word abstract, “drawing away from”, suggests an art that started in figurative representation but moved away from it into non-representation. The careers of Kandinsky, Mondrian and Pollock all show a gradual development from realistic depiction into pure abstraction.

But there are artists whose work started in non-representation, whose thinking was already based on abstraction. The word used for this is Concrete art (Art Concret), a term first employed in the 1930s and promoted by the Swiss Max Bill. He famously declared that he believed in an art largely derived from mathematics.

Obviously ‘concrete’ doesn’t refer to a building material, but to something real and actual. Concrete artists see a work as existing in its own ontology, without reference to external images, feelings, memories or ideas. They are things that should be taken on their own terms.

In photography this is a difficult idea because the medium is “wedded to the world through the mechanism of recorded light”. Photography captures the world outside of the camera, a “quotation of reality”, as John Berger described it. If a painting is something added to the world, a photograph is something taken from it.

Gottfried Jäger has dedicated his long career to Concrete Photography, and his writings and artworks help to define the movement. The images displayed here are simple pieces of black & white darkroom paper, exposed to light, processed and carefully cut. They are from a series called Fotomaterialarbeiten – Photo material works – a suitably objective title. More can be found by clicking on his name.

In the above image, a sheet of paper has been exposed with an X and an X has been cut into the paper alongside. In the image below, sheets of paper have been exposed and cut to create the impression of a single folded sheet. Look closely.

According to Jäger, they dispense with depicting external objects and posit themselves as the theme. The results are pure images of light, photographs of photography.

A Concrete photograph attains object character. It is not a sign of something, but is itself something. It is not what is represented but what is present. It engenders objects of itself and thus fulfills the central criterion of every concrete art: self-reference.

                                                 Gottfried Jäger, Foto object 1999XV

.The archive of Jäger’s photography can be found by clicking here.


Photographic Abstractions

David Moore, Blue Collage, 1983

Abstract photography is a complicated idea. The medium is so closely identified with visual reality that any attempt to move away from it seems contrary to it’s innate purpose.

It’s featured in the exhibition Photographic Abstractions at the Monash Gallery. Different ways into abstraction are presented, and it’s a useful map of the territory as practiced in Australia.

A dictionary definition describes abstract as “having no reference to material objects or specific examples”. That would seem to make it difficult for photography, but the word’s Latin root means “drawing away from” or “removed”.  Abstract art “drew away” from figurative art in the early 20th century when Kandinsky, Delauney and others painted more and more abstractly, arriving at pure abstraction in 1910. But their abstract art developed out of their figurative art.

On that basis, a lot of photography can be described as abstract because it moves away from straight recording of the visual world, into pattern, line, blur etc. The David Moore collage above is comprised of sliced up colour prints of a road surface and sky, but it’s the elegant geometric composition that you see.

Harry Nankin, Cathexis/Fragments 11, 1993

Harry Nankin and Susan Purdey have photograms on display, but surely this technique is the opposite of abstract? An object makes an image of itself on photographic paper without the mediation of a lens or film. It’s a 1:1 relationship in scale and touch, and that sounds like realism to me. Indeed, Harry once told me the reason he moved away from lens-based photography of nature was to get nature itself to make the pictures. But the images are not realistic in the way a colour photograph is, they are more like charcoal drawings.

Robert Owen‘s Endings are perhaps closer to the abstract ideal as they are pure material with no indexical links to an object. They are Kodachrome film ends enlarged into colour prints that are just fields of colour. One of them was from a roll of film (coincidentally) shot on the day Mark Rothko died, and the image has a distinct resemblance to a Rothko abstract painting.

Perhaps there’s a problem in classing this image as abstract – purely abstract. If it was chosen for its resemblance to a Rothko painting then there is a degree of representation in it after all, even if accidental. It is certainly abstract visually, but in resembling something out in the world doesn’t it fulfill photography’s descriptive purpose?

Left: Robert Owen, Endings (Rothko died today) – Kodachrome 64, No 21. 26/02/1970. 2009

Right: Mark Rothko painting, title & date unknown

Kimber’s Steichen

Mark Kimber, Return to White Cloud Lake, 2012

Adelaide photographer Mark Kimber makes pretty still lifes with a plastic toy camera. He has an exhibition at Sydney’s Stills Gallery called The Pale Mirror: dreamy, soft-focus tabletop miniatures. They have a quaint humour, sometimes a slightly menacing quality.

The benign image above is a take on Edward Steichen’s 1903 Pictorialist landscape, The Big White Cloud, also a dreamy image. Kimber seems to have used cotton wool for the cloud of the title.

Kimber’s is a romantic art saturated with the history of photography. His images are lush, fervent. He looks for “situations where the play of light, form and landscape converge in time and space to create an elusive and ephemeral piece of theatre.” 

You can view the whole exhibition here.

Edward Steichen, The Big White Cloud, Lake George, 1903