Erich Balg photographer

 Erich Balg, “Strümpfe” (Stocking), 1950s
When Wolfgang Sievers was a young man in Germany, just before he emigrated to Australia, he studied at an art & design school in Berlin, the Contempora (Contempora—Lehrateliers für neue Werkkunst).
Sievers spoke warmly about his experience there, saying it was the most intense education he ever had. He liked its practicality: following classes in the morning the school turned into a professional studio in the afternoon, and students worked on real commercial jobs. Sievers himself was often put in charge, and was offered a teaching position when he decided to emigrate to Australia.
The school lasted only a few years, from 1932 to 1939, at the start of World War II. You can imagine the difficulty of running an education business in that turbulent era in Nazi Germany. Its founder was a prominent architect, Fritz August Brehaus, but the man in charge of the photography department was Erich Balg (1904-77) a prominent photographer in Germany for many years.
Balg worked for the fashionable Atelier Binder in Berlin before helping Brehaus establish the Contempora. He survived the war and continued as a commercial photographer in Hamburg into the 1960s. His photographs are documented at and show his evolution from dark moody Pictorialism in the 1920s through to clinical commercial photography in the 1950s and 60s. I prefer the warmth of his earlier work.
Erich Balg, Portrait of the actor Alexander Moissi, 1920s


Erich Balg, “Stadt NN”, 1920sErich Balg, "für Atelier Binder, Stadt Ellingen, Franken", 1920

Erich Balg, for Studio Binder, Ellingen, Franconia

Euclid in Tel Aviv


Greg Neville, Azrieli Center, Tel Aviv, 2007

The Azrieli Center in Tel Aviv was designed by Israeli-American architect architect Eli Attia, It’s geometric order and precision rises serenely over the chaos of highways beneath it.

This 2007 photograph shows the circle and triangle towers, but since then, the square tower has gone up.


Degas and photography


Edgar Degas, In a café (The Absinthe drinker), 1875-76

The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) has announced its 2016 Winter Masterpieces blockbuster, Degas: A New Vision. Edgar Degas was one of the key Impressionist painters in the late 19th century.

The exhibition draws together hundreds of Degas’ works from galleries in 13 countries. NGV director Tony Ellwood said the exhibition announcement was a timely celebration of Australia’s connection with French art and culture. (The Age)

Degas is particularly relevant to photographers because he was one of the earliest painters to show incorporate a photographic vision in his art. A keen photographer himself at the dawn of amateur photography in the 19th century, he used the medium to record subjects for his paintings. In doing so, he seemed to predict the subject matter and aesthetics of photography in the future.


Brassaï, Couple d’amoureux dans un bistrot, rue Saint-Denis, 1932

These days, Degas abandons himself entirely to his new passion for photography” (1895)

Some works by Degas show an uncanny affinity to the accidental compositions of candid photography and street reportage, almost before these genres arrived. Look at his painting of the Place de la Concorde with its strangely cut off figures entering and leaving the frame. With its complete lack of “bella figura”, the aestheticised harmony of classical painting, it’s more like an offbeat street photograph by Lee Friedlander in the 1970s than a painting by a trained artist in the 1870s.


Edgar Degas, Viscount Lepic and his Daughters Crossing the Place de la Concorde, 1875

“Degas’ photographic figure studies, portraits of friends and family, and self-portraits were made in the evenings, when Degas transformed dinner parties into photographic soirees, requisitioning the living rooms of his friends, arranging oil lamps, and directing the poses of dinner guests enlisted as models.” (from Edgar Degas: Photographer, Met Publications)

Degas nudes

Comparison of Degas photograph and painting, 1890s

There’s no indication yet if the exhibition will include his photography or draw attention to the influence photography had on his painting. But it will still be an opportunity to see the original works and know that many were fertilized by the young medium. It will be interesting to speculate on which ones contain that seed.

Degas: A New Vision will open at the NGV in St Kilda Road on June 24, 2016.


The Cranes are Flying


The Cranes are Flying is a Russian film that took the cinema world by storm in the 1950s. After electrifying audiences inside the Soviet Union it went on to great success in the West despite the Cold War atmosphere, winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 1958. Focussing on two young lovers at the start of World War II, its emotional intensity is matched by great artistic bravado.

The cinematographer was Sergei Urusevsky who made several films with director Mikhail Kalatozov, all of them marked by a radical visual style.

Urusevsky was a controversial artist in the Soviet era because of the overt artistic quality of his camera work. He was labelled a formalist, preoccupied with artistic effects, a dangerous accusation in the era of Soviet Realism where communist propaganda was seen as the role of art.

“Sergei Urusevsky will be remembered as one of the most innovative and resourceful figures in the history of cinematography, a proponent of a filmmaking in which a subjective camera narrates the film. He advocated a camera technique that would edit the film with its own movement and make montage obsolete.” (

In her book on the film, (The Cranes are Flying, Taurus, London, 2003) Josephine Woll describes “Uresevsky’s nervous, dynamic (often hand-held) camera, the flow of frames that creates a sense of constant motion, and the rapid changes of point of view matched Kalatozov’s romantic sensibility, his plasticity. The cinematographer describes the process as ‘thinking in images’.”

Urusevsky employed a subjective camera style where the framing and  movements themselves convey emotions rather than just observing them in the performance. You can see that in the dramatic angles and extreme close ups in the images below. The camera’s eye is inside the character’s emotional space, it “becomes her shadow, her double, and resonates with her emotions.”  (Woll 2003)





Cranes has one of the great individual shots in cinema history, a tour-de-force of camera operating, performance and the coordinating of extras and machines. The protagonist Veronika is desperately trying to reach her lover who is about to march off to war, but her bus is held up in traffic. In a single handheld shot we follow up-close as she gets up and leaves the bus, rushes through the melée of crowds and vehicles then runs between moving tanks in a military parade.

Imagine yourself as the camera operator manouvering inside the bus,  following the actress through the crowd, then stepping onto a waiting platform and being hoisted up in the air by a crane. When you see this shot, you’ll realize the title of the film has another meaning altogether!

Office with secretary


Gottscho-Schleisner, Russel Wright, 221 E. 48th St., New York City. Office with secretary, 1948

This unsettling photograph has appeared on, the online archive of vintage photographs. It was taken in 1948 for the office of Russel Wright, the esteemed mid-century American designer. His modern industrial design was not unlike that of Charles and Ray Eames, organic, playful and contemporary. So it’s a mystery why such a sterile image was deemed suitable to promote the business.

It has such a rare blankness it’s a treasure, a perfect depiction of 20th century urban alienation. Presumably these qualities were not intended. It was taken by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc, the architectural photography studio whose work often achieved a high degree of clarity and technical perfection. No doubt the photographer was just trying to do a neat job, and asked the secretary to keep very still during the exposure.

Whatever the explanation, I’m sure one day it will appear on the cover of George Orwell’s 1984 or some other dystopian novel. After all, the photograph  was taken in 1948, the year Orwell wrote his novel, naming it by simply re-arranging the numbers of the year.

Pictorialism with digital noise


Greg Neville, Central Victoria Road, 2015


cropped section

This image was taken on a Canon G10, a high-end compact camera that has a tiny 5x7mm sensor. At full zoom, the camera is interpolating the information and the result is this soft, noisy result. The digital noise, in this case at least, creates a pointillist effect, like an Impressionist painting or a Pictorialist photograph made on the Autochrome colour process.


Autochrome photograph by unknown photographer, ‘Claude Monet outside his house at Giverny’, 1921.

Autochrome was the first commercial colour photography process, invented by the Lumiere brothers who also just happen to invent cinema. It was first marketed in 1907 and was taken up by some of the leading Pictorial photographers, Edward Steichen, Arnold Genthe and others.

The medium consists of a glass plate coated on one side with a random mosaic of microscopic grains of potato starch dyed red-orange, green, and blue-violet which act as color filters. Lampblack fills the spaces between grains, and a black-and-white panchromatic silver halide emulsion is coated on top of the filter layer. (Wikipedia)

Meyerowitz does Morandi


Joel Meyerowitz, from Morandi’s Objects, 2015

Joel Meyerowitz has been photographing the objects that Giorgio Morandi painted in his studio for many decades.

Morandi was one of Italy’s most celebrated 20th century artists, known for his subdued, contemplative still life paintings. The same objects appeared over and over in different arrangements, in a body of mainly small works that is revered throughout the art world.

Meyerowitz was granted two days access to the props in Morandi’s studio in Bologna, which is now a museum. He photographed 277 of them on the same bench and against the same paper background the painter used until his death in 1964.

Meyerowitz is known for his street photography and for his pioneering using of colour, so making still lifes in a narrow range of muted earth-tones must have been a new challenge for the 77 year old photographer.


“Meyerowitz worked at Morandi’s table, where the light still falls, as it always has, on the circles and lines the painter drew to mark the positions of his objects. The background remains as Morandi left it, a pale, rosy golden paper that is brittle and ready to crumble at the slightest touch.”


While it’s clear the photographer was not trying to do what the painter did, the project does provide an opportunity to compare the two mediums: what does photography do and what does painting do?


Giorgio Morandi, Still Life 1957

The exhibition of Meyerowitz photographs, Morandi’s Objects, is at Spazio Damiani, a new gallery for contemporary photography in Bologna.


Maurizio Anzeri


Maurizio Anzeri, Edith, 2011

There is a small but noticeable trend amongst photo artists to use vintage photographs as a canvas for new work. Old studio portraits, actors’ publicity shots, cartes-de-visites and collectable postcards are getting a going-over with paintbrush, pencil and needle-and-cotton.

Tom Butler and Julie Cockburn add strange markings on 19th century faces and even veteran photographer Duane Michals has been painting cubistic designs to the faces in old portraits.

London-based Maurizio Anzeri applies embroidery to his found portrait photos combining complex colourful patterns with warm-toned studio portraits.

Maurizio Anzeri makes his portraits by sewing directly into found vintage photographs. His embroidered patterns garnish the figures like elaborate costumes, but also suggest a psychological aura, as if revealing the person’s thoughts or feelings.

This amusing video shows how he does it.


Maurizio Anzeri, Penny 2012


Maurizio Anzeri, Nicola, 2011

James Dean at Times Square


Poster for Life, the 2015 movie directed by Anton Corbijn

Life is a new biographical movie based on the friendship of Life magazine photographer Dennis Stock and Hollywood actor James Dean. It stars Robert Pattinson as Stock and Dane DeHaan as Dean and film was directed by Anton Corbijn who is himself a well known still photographer.

Dennis Stock was a noted Magnum photographer during the 1950s and 60s, best known for his iconic Times Square photo of Dean as Beat Generation anti-hero. The poster shows Dean and Stock walking side by side, with the letters IF isolated from the film title. This may refer to the ‘if’ of Dean’s future acting career, had he lived. He was killed in a car accident at age 24 a few months after the photo was taken.


Screenshot from trailer of Life, 2015


Dennis Stock, James Dean at Times Square, print from the Magnum archive.

Stock seems to have under-exposed his photo, you can see how black the shadows are. Look at the print below with Magnum’s darkroom printer Pablo Inirio‘s burning and dodging notations. It takes a lot to turn a mere shot into an icon.


Photograph by Dennis Stock with printing annotations by Pablo Inirio

The movie has opened in Europe in to positive reviews, and will open in the US in December. No newas yet of an Australian release date.

Perspective of Nudes

Screen Shot 2015-10-16 at 7.45.55 pm

Perspective of Nudes by Bill Brandt, published in 1961

Bill Brandt”s 1961 Perspective of Nudes is a landmark photo book, rare today and fetching high prices on the vintage book market, one recently sold for $1200. It was finely printed in heliogravure, the oldest procedure for reproducing photographic images, and rare in publishing after the 1940s.

Published in the UK by The Bodley Head, (the publishing house that Penguin Books grew out of) it presents 90 black & white nudes distorted by the unusual cameras Brandt used. The beach exteriors were taken with a Hasselblad Super-Wide, and interiors were taken with the unusual Kodak Wide Angle Camera – see my previous post.

The Photobook: A History states that Brandt “rewrote the language of nude photography in not one, but several quarters … they are as interesting for their psychological undertones as for the wealth of unexpected forms he conjured.

Brandt acknowledged a debt to the wide angle, deep focus cinematography of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. His lenses stretch the figures into sculptural shapes, partlly abstract, and reminiscent of the contemporaneous sculptures of Jean Arp and Henry Moore.

“Instead of photographing what I saw, I photographed what the camera was seeing. I interfered very little, and the lens produced anatomical images and shapes which my eyes had never observed.”

You can see more pages from the book on Josef Chaldek’s photo book site