Vienna, Virginia, circa 1920. “H.A. Money.” The undertaker Howard A. Money (1859-1931). National Photo Company Collection glass negative.
This strange photograph appeared on the vintage photo website Shorpy.com, always an entertaining way to waste some time. It records a Virginian undertaker in the early 20th century.
The frontal and symmetric composition has all the grace of a passport photo and it’s something you instinctively avoid in portraits as it looks gauche. The subject is dumped in the centre of the frame and stares back dumbly with no protective cover. It’s a style without rhetoric – there’s no posing from the sitter and no artistic flourish from the photographer.
Still, it has the advantage of a certain honesty. The subject is unguarded and more open, and the transaction with the photographer is more straightforward – just capture the likeness.
August Sander, the most august of all portrait photographers, occasionally employed this frontal pose, notably in the two examples below.
August Sander, The painter Anton Räderscheidt, Cologne, 1927
August Sander, Soldier, 1940
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Behind the Gare Saint Lazare, 1932
In late 2016 I made a pilgrimage to the Gare St Lazare, the Paris train station where Henri Cartier-Bresson made his fateful snap in 1932.
This was the first photograph that hit me with the potential of photography, that “light bulb moment”. Seeing it as a teenager at the old National Gallery of Victoria I thought to myself “Oh, so you can do this with photography.”
About where that man is walking, 24 year old Henri held his camera up against the fence and pressed the shutter just as an unknown man leapt across the puddle. It is a trivial moment captured for ever, with all the elements caught in a perfect equilibrium.
Greg Neville, John Gollings exhibition, 2017
Monash Gallery of Art, “the Australian home of photography,” has a retrospective exhibition of the work of John Gollings, our premier architectural photographer.
“The History of the Built World is the first major survey of Golling’s photographic practice, and offers a much anticipated opportunity to appreciate the full breadth of his unique photographic vision.”
It may seem a stretch to call it the history of the built world, but his subjects go back to aboriginal interventions in the environment of 28000 years ago – see photo above – and include ancient Indian structures and other antiquities along the way to contemporary architecture by Frank Gehry and others.
Golling’s approach has been consistent throughout his half-century career, to interpret a building’s structure and explain it in its own place and context. As a trained architect he understands design and form. The exhibition presents his photography as an illustrative craft, always in service to the client and the subject.
Gollings is also a spectacular entertainer. His vital images radiate energy and he employs every trick to achieve it: ultra-wide lenses to stretch space, natural and artificial light for colour gloss, and shameless vignetting to focus the eye on the glowing subject at the centre. In a sense, he combines the instincts of a Pictorialist – to make the picture and its subject an aesthetic object, and a modernist – to express the building’s deep structure. He is one of our indispensible photographic artists.
John Gollings: The history of the built world runs until March 4, 2018 at Monash Gallery of Art.