Unless You Will


Look out for a new conference coming up at RMIT about documentary photography. Called Unless You Will, it will be “a weekend of conversations, inspiration and insights” and will be held on the weekend of February 17 and 18.

Documentary, photojournalism and street photography are currently having a revival round the world, not least in Australia. Printed magazines and institutional reports are the traditional outlet for these genres, but today we also have internet, exhibitions and photo books. It is a growing, confident field.

The speakers at the conference, many from overseas, are seasoned professional photographers and educators so the standard of inquiry and exchange will be high. Click here to see the list, but two of my favourites are Katrin Koenning from Melbourne and Mustafah Abdulaziz from Berlin. There will also be an exhibition, workshop and photo book awards.

To attend the conference you need to register and pay. The cost for the  two-day weekend ticket is extremely low: $99,  or $70 with student/concession. If you’re into documentary photography, you can afford that.

Girt by Sea

maddison-1    Ruth Maddison, Girt by Sea installation, Monash Gallery of Art, 2017

Ruth Maddison is showing an impressive series of photograms at the Monash Gallery of Art as part of the Life Aquatic exhibition.

Lumen prints as they are described, is the process where objects are placed on photographic paper in sunlight and left for a few minutes or even hours. It’s a fancy word for sun prints or outdoor photograms and it takes us back to “photogenic drawing,” the process Henry Fox Talbot discovered in the 1830s before he invented the Calotype.

A Lumen print is made without developing chemicals as sunlight itself converts the silver halide crystals into particles of silver, the substance making up black & white analogue images. The prints are chemically fixed and washed to preserve them, but the image itself is magically formed by sunlight alone.

Photogram photography, perhaps because of its primitive appeal
(no camera, no enlarger, no darkroom) is having a revival these days in the face of the advanced digital technologies. For example, Geoffrey Batchen, the distinguished historian of photography, has recently produced a handsome book and exhibition on the photogram’s history called Emanations, The Art of the Cameraless Photograph.

One of the first female photographers was Anna Atkins, an English botanist who made photograms of plant specimens on the seashore. Thus it may be that Maddison, by making photograms of plant life at the seaside town of Eden, is celebrating Atkins pioneering work.


The installation is part of Life Aquatic, at the Monash Gallery of Art. The other artists in the show are Narelle Autio and Catherine Nelson. The exhibition continues until February 26. It will lift your spirits.

Lord Snowdon dies


The British photographer Lord Snowdon, Antony Armstrong-Jones, has died at age 86. He was one of the most famous and successful commercial photographers in the middle decades of the 20th century.

Already established in London as a fashion and portrait photographer, he married Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s sister, in 1960. It cemented his fame as a jet-setting celebrity and the go-to photographer for the royal and famous. You can and should read about his exhausting life at wikipedia.

A very capable photographer, Snowdon set a high standard of professional gloss in his abundant fashion photography, and in his many memorable portraits. But he never seemed to establish a distinctive visual style, as Cecil Beaton or David Bailey did working in similar fields. His place in the histories of photography is not certain for this reason, he does not make a clearly identifiable package.

The National Portrait Gallery in London has “the most extensive collection of portraits in the world offering a unique insight into the men and women who have and are shaping British history.” It has a large collection of Snowdon’s pictures, and perhaps that institute is where his reputation should stand, not as a distinctive artistic stylist, but as a chronicler of the famous and notable faces of his time. 

snowdon-margaret-1967                           Lord Snowdon, Princess Margaret, 1967

Amongst the Snowdon portraits at the National Portrait Gallery are these excellent photographs of writers, they are almost the definition of the environmental portrait genre. Magazine commissions, they were shot in square format on one of the Hasselblads he was often portrayed with.

snowdon-greer-71                           Lord Snowdon, Germaine Greer, 1971

snowdon-powell-npg                           Lord Snowdon, Anthony Powell, 1978

by Lord Snowdon, vintage bromide print, 25 February 1992                           Lord Snowdon, Doris Lessing, 1992

Meltem Isik’s disturbing bodies

meltem-isik-2                                                     Meltem Isik, Twice into the Stream, 2011

Meltem Isik is a Turkish artist who likes to play with images of the human body. I use the word play because she creates illusions and paradoxes that trick the eye and make you smile, or shudder.

As you can see, she takes close ups of a person’s body, prints them large and poses the model with the print. It’s a simple enough idea but it’s done in a way to create a visual continuity between the two elements. Perhaps she takes the close ups, prints them, and re-photographs them with the model, all in the same studio session. 

Through intricate compositions of photographic images, Meltem Isik explores the way we see and perceive the human body. The complexity that originates from the capability of our bodies to see and be seen provides the basis of her work.

 Isik has made another series of disturbing body images, called Suspicious Affinities. Take a look.

meltem-isik-1                                                 Meltem Isik, Twice into the Stream, 2011

John Berger dies


John Berger, the English art critic and novelist, has died at age 90. He is most famous for the TV series and book from 1972 called Ways of Seeing. It revolutionized thinking about art, especially about gender representations, and it is still an indispensable text. Both the TV series and the book were extremely innovative in form.

Berger wrote extensively about art and I have in my collection the Penguin book called Understanding a Photograph, a series of short essays. The essay that gives the book its title is interesting as a fragment from another time, 1968, before the market for photographs as works of art developed.

He critiques the medium of photography as an art. Circumstances have changed since 1968 but it’s still worth reading. Here is a collection of quotes that I  underlined when I first read the book.

It now seems fortunate that few museums have had the foresight to open photographic departments, for it means that few photographs have been preserved in sacred isolation.

By their nature, photographs have little or no property value because they have no rarity value. Thus, in twentieth century terms, photographs are records of things seen. Let us consider them no closer to works of art than cardiograms.

It is more useful to categorize art by what has become its social function. It functions as property. Accordingly, photographs are outside of this category.

Photography is the process of rendering observation self-conscious.

The formal arrangements of a photograph explain nothing. The events portrayed are in themselves mysterious or explicable according to the spectator’s knowledge of them prior to his seeing the photograph.

The true content of a photograph is invisible, for it derives from a play, not with form, but with time.

Phrenological heads

phrenological-heads             If you’re a portrait photographer, you might be interested in this. The Science Museum in London is showing this set of heads from 1831. It’s a kit to train practitioners of phrenology.

And what is Phrenology? It was a crank pseudo-science of the early 19th century that taught that the shape of the skull determined personality. Yes, you read that right, the bumps on your head decide what sort of person you are.

Phrenology originated with a German physician, Franz Joseph Gall, in 1796 and it took off all over the world. It became a sort of popular science and parlour game. People believed that different regions and functions of the brain would vary in size according to ability or disability. The shape of the skull adjacent to these regions would be effected and could be interpreted by an expert through feeling the skull. It was a map of identity. Early Daguerreotype photographers would have had this in mind when they took their portraits. Is there a PhD waiting for someone to research this connection?

As you can see, a variety of head-types are included in the kit. For example, head no.54 is a scientific man and head no.8 is an ‘idiot’. One description states that “when the forehead is perfectly perpendicular, from the hair to the eyebrows, it denotes an utter deficiency of understanding.”

Look closely at each head. Do you see yourself there?