San Francisco at night


Vincent Laforet, San Francisco, 2014

Vincent Laforet is a leading US commercial photographer with a specialty in aerial photography of cities, at night, from a helicopter. The degree of technical difficulty is high because of the low light and consequent exposure problems, plus the shaking platform up in the air. He’s a master photographer and uses the best equipment but it’s still a big thing to make pictures as pretty as these. Click on this one of San Francisco to see what I mean.

Laforet is an artist and a pro and he promotes his work as widely as he can, through books, magazines, video and his website. You can also see his blog, which shows what’s involved in being a top professional photographer in the US:



Postcard beauty


Postcard, c1908

When the picture postcard industry started up in about 1900, one of the most popular genres was theatrical cards, with images of stage and music hall stars. These glamorous identities were presented in beautiful studio portraits, usually sepia-tones or hand-coloured, some even with glitter added.

For some time, only the address was permitted on the back of these postcards so that any written message was forced on to the front. Most cards were sent or collected intact with no message, but in some cases writing over the message produced a hybrid image-text “artwork”.

These cards would be lovely without the handwriting, but the texture of the script seems to add something to the image, a veil of words and sentiments.

The cards originate from Barcelona and Constantinople, present day Istanbul, and what journey brought them here I can only imagine. The one below is the subject of a post on this blog from 2013.

Information about this genre of historic postcards can be found at







Postmarked Costa Rica, addressed to Barcelona, Christmas Eve 1905


Pictures with a Purpose



Pictures with a Purpose is a 1939 book by Charles Kerlee, an established commercial photographer in California. With its dramatic Art Deco cover, the book presents a range of his work in beautiful black & white printing, along with detailed stories of how each photograph was made (click on the images to read them). He explains everything.

For example, the 5×4 Du Pont Superior Panchromatic film was developed in Pyro-Acetone developer and the prints enlarged with a condensor enlarger were developed in Amidol. He gives the exact formulas of each. Describing the photograph of the shoe, he states:

Minimum exposure was absolutely essential to give the best rendition of the delicate detail and texture. The slightest over-exposure would have caused a loss of contrast in the perforations, in that the darks in the small holes would tend to become lighter. Furthermore, over-exposure would have caused a loss of the delicate middle-tones of the suede leather.

That is a seasoned professional talking. Three years after this book when the US entered World War II, the great Edward Steichen set up the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit and recruited the best photographers he could find. Kerlee was among them.


Kelee-2 Kelee-7



The cosmos underfoot


Irving Penn, Underfoot series, 2000-2001

At the age of 84, photographer Irving Penn was working on a new project …

Walking the streets of Manhattan with a portable stool and a camera fitted with several extension tubes, Penn lowered his eye and his equipment nearly to the pavement. There he found a universe of abject form: pebbled concrete, discarded matches and cigarette butts, and above all a wealth of masticated gum.

Printed on expensive platinum paper, these soft grey images are a gallery of faces, grimacing, shrieking and chuckling. They are all made from tiny spots of trodden-on chewing gum. Curator James Wood, marvelled at how they showed “the cosmos underfoot.”

Irving Penn, like his contemporary Richard Avedon, was s a major figure in photography, a fashion photographer who practically defined mid-century chic, a portraitist of the most worthy celebrities and an innovative advertising photographer. He was great commercial success story for sixty years. but throughout this period he was also an artist pursuing his own projects. Underfoot is one such project and typical in that it embraces the lowest subject matter and raises it to a high status.

Penn used his 8×10 camera to transform detritus into monumental figures. The large gallery prints were made from the noble metal palladium, one of the most difficult and expensive print materials. Despite the ugliness of the subject matter, the prints are gorgeous examples of black & white craft. And you can imagine how a photographer who’s day job involved glamour and celebrity might, in his off-time, want to explore its opposite.

Although a New Yorker, Penn donated his entire archive to the Art Institute of Chicago. You can see the Underfoot project at their website here, and many other Penn projects here,






Avedon and Julian Bond


Richard Avedon, Julian Bond and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Atlanta, Georgia, March 23, 1963

The exhibition Richard Avedon People closes this weekend at the Ian Potter Museum so you’re running out of time. This is the first Avedon show in Australia.

One of my students was surprised at how how involved Avedon was in progressive politics in the 1960s, a turbulent decade in the US. He photographed everyone on the left, including Civil Rights leader Julian Bond.

This is a remarkable photograph, presenting the leader of the renowned Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as part of a seemingly endless and unstoppable column. He is the leader but an equal amongst his comrades. Avedon achieves this with the careful placement of individuals, male/female, young/older, light-skinned/dark-skinned. It’s a representative sample of a community.

He does it also with the selective focus of the shallow depth-of-field. A large lens aperture progressively blurs those further away from the main figure, but enfolds them in the same tonal shape. The blur, together with their calm expressions, quietens the picture, illustrating the nonviolent part of the group’s title. There was another shot taken at the same time but it’s much less effective in making this point.

In his last year, at the age of 81, Avedon photographed Bond again. Now a distinguished American with decades as a senator, Bond is in the centre of the composition and fills the frame. It’s made in Avedon’s classic formal style, the black film-edge framing and locking the subject, the one-to-one encounter giving us the full force of two remarkable people.


Richard Avedon, Julian Bond, 2004


The history of a cabinet card


Verso of cabinet portrait

This beautiful piece of Victorian lettering is the back of a 19th century portrait photograph, a cabinet card. This format was popular from the 1860s as a larger version of the tiny carte-de-visite, measuring 108 x 165 mm (4¼ x 6½ inches). Called cabinet cards because they were big enough to be displayed in glass cabinets, they were popular until about 1900 when Kodak amateur photography took over.

Cabinet cards and cartes-de-visite were usually albumen prints glued onto printed cards that advertised the studio. They were sturdy and portable, and millions, probably tens of millions, were made. all over the world. There were so many of them that even now, over a century later, they can be bought for as little as 10 dollars.

The lettering announces the photographer as S. Solomon of the Adelaide School of Photography. The website Trove discovers him as “portrait painter, professional photographer, businessman, civic leader and politician born in Knightsbridge in 1836.” He was the son of a well known dealer in photographic apparatus, Joseph Solomon, so photography and business ran in the family.

Saul Solomon migrated to Australia in 1852 at the height of the goldrush, he was in that wave of opportunists chasing money in the colony of Victoria. From 1857 to 1862 he had a studio in Main Road, Ballarat, advertising portraits with the new collodion process. A complete photograph in a presentation case cost 5 shillings or more, over a day’s pay for a worker.

Solomon continued to be active in Ballarat until 1874, working in partnership with a Mr. Bardwell, and based in Sturt Street. The firm Solomon and Bardwell was also active in the towns of Maryborough and Dunolly. The colony had worked out for him.

But why the Adelaide address on my card? From 1874 to 1891 he was operating as the Adelaide School of Photography in Rundle Street, Adelaide. This company name attests to the widespread popularity of photography in the late 19th century and the desire to learn how to do it. Solomon has previously advertised both his commercial portraiture and classes he offered. This grand new name suggests that one side of his business had expanded. That’s exactly how Photography Studies College in Melbourne started out in the 1970s, from a photography studio by day, to a photography school at night.

But all this history ignores the reason for the card, the portrait of the man on the front. We know who photographed him from the elaborate lettering, but no name gives the identity of the sitter himself. It can never been known, the thread of family connections is broken. Whoever he was, whatever life he led, this handsome Victorian swain is now lost to history.





Sylwia Kowalczyk a

Sylwia Kowalczyk, Nightwatching, 2011-13

Nightwatching is a striking series of portraits by Sylwia Kowalczyk but it has a special meaning for the artist herself. In 2006 she suffered a detached retina and was at risk of losing her eyesight completely. An operation saved her, but she was left with the primal fear of blindness, an acute dread for a visual artist.

Kowalczyk is Polish but resides in Edinburgh with her husband, the photographer Simon Crofts. Together, they plough the fields of paying photography; their combined work can be seen on the blog She is also a commercial illustrator, with a style very different from her photographic work: see it at the illustrious illustrator.

Blindness is a compelling subject for photographers, so reliant are they on the act of seeing. Photographer Natalie Gilbert has written an academic paper on blind photography, See As No Other. And Petapixel has no less than eight stories about blind and colourblind photographers.

The 1991 movie Proof starred Hugo Weaving as a blind photographer who needs Russell Crowe to describe the contents of his photographs to him.