Sarah Charlesworth’s Camera Work

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Sarah Charleworth, Camera Work, 2009

The Whitney Biennale this year featured a dramatic work by Sarah Charlesworth, known for her “formally concise images that address the many philosophical, political, and personal dimensions of the act of looking.”

Charlesworth, who died recently, was a prominent member of the so-called Pictures Generation, those mainly New York artists who rose to prominence in the 1970s through their critiques of media culture. Along with Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons and Sherrie Levine, the focus of Charlesworth’s art was the commercial cultures of photography, advertising, television and their political undercurrents, for example the gender stereotyping of the entertainment industries. “I’ve engaged questions regarding photography’s role in culture for 12 years now, but it is an engagement with a problem rather than a medium.”

The above late work from 2009 plays on the physics of photography using the title of Alfred Stiegleitz’ Camerawork magazine of the early 1900s. Camerawork helped establish photography as an art form and was arguably an ancestor to Charlesworth’s own practice as a photo media artist.

 “…the silhouetted image of a camera is presented in both positive and negative, images that are visually opposed but ultimately form a reciprocal diagram of photographic production; the camera stands in for the labor and the vision of the artist herself.” (Whitney)


Jesse Marlow’s new book


Melbourne photojournalist Jesse Marlow has a new book out, Don’t Just Tell Them, Show Them. Marlow is one of that rare species, the nimble street photographer who finds humour and pathos in the fleeting events of everyday life. What we barely register, he captures in concise pictures of patterns of human behaviour.

Street photography as a mode has increased in prominence in recent years, a revival after the glory days of the 1960s when giants walked the earth, Winogrand, Friedlander, et al. Marlow, and another Melbourne photographer Louis Porter, work in a city that doesn’t have a street-life culture, unlike Cartier-Breson’s Paris or Winogrand’s New York. Thus their achievement is all the greater. Like Porter, Marlow is essentially a humourist as you can see from the dancing glaziers above.

The book was designed by M.33 and designed by Jason McQuoid, co-proprieter of the Edmund Pearce Gallery, It’s available from bookshops now or from Jesse Marlow’s website.


Matthew Brandt’s Dust


Matthew Brandt, Demolition of Madison Square Garden, 1925. 2014

Matthew Brandt’s Dust series shared the Yossi Milo Gallery with his La Brea series in the recent exhibition Excavations.These works were made with a similar antique process and arduous procedure.

Paying a kind of hommage to New York’s lost buildings, he collected dust from the site of long gone structures such as the old Madison Square Garden demolished in the 1920s. He sourced photographs of the demolitions from the public library and proceeded to make Gum Bichromate prints from them. This process is a cross between photography and printmaking and was popular in Pictorialist times.

Brandt’s process differed from earlier versions because instead of using colour pigment to make the prints, he used the dust he had collected.

Brandt’s Dust prints compress time by reproducing historical photographs of demolished sites and buildings with physical elements from the present.


The rise and rise of abstract photography


Christian Marclay, Allover (Genesis, Travis Tritt, and others) 2008

Have you noticed how much abstract photography is out there these days. Not so long ago it was a very marginal category, an interesting but barely explored region. Today it’s in the vanguard of the avant-garde, an urgent issue for what is usually taken to be a representational medium.

It’s interesting to see how the abstract idea works in photography. Unlike painting, in photography you can’t really apply the lines and forms by hand, deliberately placing brushstrokes exactly where you want colours and lines to appear. Think of Kandinsky and Malevich, the two Russians who invented abstract art. In photography, you capture what is already there and try to make formal sense out of it by camera position and placement within the frame.

Well, that’s what I originally thought, but some contemporary photographic artists are challenging that notion.

The Christian Marclay cyanotype above resembles a Jackson Pollock drip painting but it’s not made of paint but audio cassette tape. “Marclay unwound the spools of old cassette tapes and proceeded to “draw” with the reams of tape. Marclay creates a labyrinth of lines, all tracing a distinct musical history that becomes abstracted on paper.”  It’s displayed in the MoMA exhibition A World of Its Own: Photographic Practices in the Studio.


The recent exhibition at the International Center of Photography was called What is a Photograph? and it took on this growing phenomenon of abstract photography, amongst other challenging modes. These three artists caught my attention.

Alison Rossiter

Alison Rossiter,  Kilborn Acme Kruxo, exact expiration date unknown, ca. 1940s, processed in 2013 

Alison Rossiter finds very old packets of photographic paper on ebay and in markets, some are 100 years old. She applies developer locally, ie not by submerging the paper, and the results are beautiful abstracts with antique tones and interesting flaws caused by their age. Some resemble landscapes.

Maco Breuer

Marco Breuer, Untitled (C-1228), 2012. Chromogenic Paper, burned  

Marco Breuer uses C-type (chromogenic) colour paper and tortures it by scratching, burning and sanding. The results are simple but rather pretty abstracts.


Mariah Robertson, 154, 2014

Mariah Robertson has the most extreme technique, both physically difficult and potentially hazardous. She uses rolls of chromogenic paper in her Brooklyn darkroom. Zipped up in a biohazard suit and with an oxygen mask she creates photogram and light effects which she processes through a machine into extremely long colour prints. They are  so long that in the gallery they have to be hung in loops from the ceiling and coiled on the floor. 

See this fascinating video of Robertson at work


Matthew Brandt’s Tar


Matthew Brandt, La Brea D2AB, 2013 

Yossi Milo Gallery is one of New York’s leading galleries specializing in photography. It’s most recent show was Excavations by Matthew Brandt, made of two projects, La Brea and Dust. The La Brea series features large pictures of prehistoric skeletons, the one above like something from the apocalypse.

Brandt has revived the oldest photographic technique, the heliography process devised by Niépce in 1826 to make that view from the farmhouse window regarded as the oldest surviving photograph. This technique was not silver-based but used tar, bitumen of Judea, as the light-sensitive medium.

The La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles is a natural formation of underground tar welling up to form a small lake, it’s black and bubbles with gas as you watch it. Prehistoric bones were found preserved in it and are mounted in a nearby museum. Brandt photographed these displays of sabre-tooth tigers and the like, and made large transparencies – very large. Then he collected tar from the tar pits, coated large sheets of aluminium, laid the transparencies over them and left them in the L.A. sun. It’s not stated how long Brandt left them to bake, but Niépce took eight hours.

After washing them to remove the soft tar, only the sun-hardened parts remain, “leaving an image of the fossil created from its ancient remains”.



Somewhere in the West Thirties


Marc Yankus, Somewhere in the West Thirties

Clampart, in New York’s Chelsea gallery district, is showing photographs that look like architectural renderings. Marc Yankus has switched from his soft focus cityscapes to make extremely detailed building “portraits” – so detailed that individual bricks can be picked out in a thirty-storey building. While he shoots in New York, he avoids the cliché skyscrapers and goes for more humble, but still worthy, old buildings.

The extreme clarity is offset by a subdued earth-tone palette and rather heavily textured skies. The effect is decorative but still impressive, in the style of Art Deco renderings.



History’s Shadow


David Maisel, History’s Shadow GM16

A recent exhibition at New York’s Yancey Richardson Gallery was David Maisel‘s eerie project, History’s Shadow. They were made during a residency at the Getty Research Insitute where he re-photographed X-rays of antiquity sculptures. These X-rays were originally made for research and conservation, but Maisel’s images brought out something quite different from the scientific.

“The ghostly images of these x-rays seemed to surpass the potency of the original objects of art. These spectral renderings were like transmissions from the distant past, conveying messages across time, and connecting the contemporary viewer to the art impulse at the core of these ancient works.”


HC-B & M-C V-B

Vaillant-Couturier-1                                                Henri Cartier-Bresson, portrait of Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, 1945

Henri Cartier-Bresson is renowned for his brilliant compositions and for his lightning reflexes. No photographer could match him in the elegant designs of his photographs which were made in the fleeting moments of his photojournalist encounters. I’m sure some of what is written about him is myth-making but it is undeniable that his photographs were very well composed.

Take this impressive portrait made just as the war was ending. Both HCB and his subject were war heroes, and the photograph is the meeting of equals. He had served as a soldier, was captured and escaped three times from a German prison camp and had then worked in the Resistance.

The subject of his portrait, Vaillant-Couturier, had an extraordinary twentieth century life. A photojournalist for VU in the 1930s, she became a Resistance fighter during the war, was captured and sent to a series of Nazi concentration camps including an 18 month term at Auschwitz. At the time the portrait was taken, she was becoming a member of the French parliament. Why are there no movies about her?

The composition of the portrait is a wonder. The oval of her face is linked to the arch behind her head, and it’s echoed in the loop of the white chair back. The rightangle of her arm draws a square with the triangle of her lapel, and it echoes the square radio in the background. These shapes counter the round shapes of the composition. The shape of her hand holding the cigarette offers a secondary focal point to her face. Her reflection on the glass table hints at another dimension to her personality. All the parts work together in a tight composition, but the picture itself does not feel tight. Instead, it holds her in balance, and somehow implies the balance of her own identity.

The portrayal is of a clear-eyed and self-determined individual, and that is what she was. She had a long career in left-wing politics as an MP and public intellectual, was a witness at the Nuremberg Trials, and was later made a Legion D’Honneur, Frances’s highest honour. You can see all that potentiality ahead of her in Cartier-Bresson’s sparkling portrait.


Citicorp story



Greg Neville, Citicorp building, 601 Lexington Ave, corner of 53rd St. New York.

Citicorp is one of the ten tallest buildings in Manhattan and it’s at the centre of a great architectural tale. Errors made during design and construction led to it becoming a structurally unsound building, 59 storey high, in crowded mid-town Manhattan. Here is what happened:

A student’s question made engineers realise that wind loads at a 45-degree angle to the tower had not been considered during design. A hurricane plus a failure of the electrically powered mass-dampener could combine to shear off the bolts that join the building’s girders together. While the original design stipulated welded joints this had changed to bolted joints during construction, a weaker outcome. Statistically, this outcome was possible once every 16 years, a serious threat.

For three months a construction crew welded two-inch-thick steel plates over each of the skyscraper’s 200 bolted joints during the night, just as the the hurricane season brought a major storm, Hurricane Ella, toward New York.

These alarming facts were kept from public knowledge and did not emerge for twenty years. No buildings below were evacuated in case the truth came out. The story has since become an architectural legend and is taught as an ethical and engineering case study in architectural courses.



Most unpopular building



Greg Neville, Met Life building above the Helmsley building, 2014

The Met Life building was originally the headquarters of the now defunct airline Pan Am. It was built in 1958-63 by Emery Roth and Walter Gropius. Yes, Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus. He had been on a long journey since designing the Dessau Bauhaus in 1926.

In a 1987 poll in New York magazine it was voted the building that New Yorkers would most like to see demolished. Why? Because it is not interesting enough and it occupies a very dominant site above Grand Central Terminal and Park Avenue. In other words it’s a loud, pushy neighbour that nobody invited.




Looking up in New York


Time Warner Center, Columbus Circle, New York. Architect David Child, 2003.

This sharp Late Modern development went up on the then most expensive real-estate in New York, facing Central Park on Columbus Circle. David Child is the architect of the new World Trade Center building on the 9/11 site, he out manouvred Daniel Liebeskind in that venture.


Hearst Tower, Eigth Avenue at 57th St. New York. Architect Norman Foster, 2006.

This High-Tech building by one of the Sirs of British architecture rises out of a handsome Art Deco building from the 1930s. This original structure was commissioned by none other than William Randolph Hearst, the fictionalized Citizen Kane, as the headquarters of his dastardly Hearst newspaper conglomerate. It was the Fox News of its day, spreading yellow journalism all over America.

The new building is a highly original design which has won prizes for its green credentials. It’s one of the new landmarks on the Manhattan skyline, always glinting in the sun.


One57, 57th St. New York. Architect Christian de Portzamparc, 2014.

This is a luxury condominium that rises high over mid-town and is the tallest apartment building in the world. At the time this picture was taken, the penthouse was sold for $90 million. Tall as it is, another vertical streak about 30% taller is soon to go up a few doors down.