William Eggleston Portraits is a significant show for Melbourne photographers, an opportunity to see one of the key postwar US photographers. It comes from London’s National Portrait Gallery where it had a somewhat different form. At least in Melbourne it’s free.
Eggleston holds an ongoing influence for subsequent generations of photographers and artists. He is best known for his pioneering use of colour and images of suburban life in the Southern United States.
This exhibition is the first comprehensive museum exhibition devoted to Eggleston’s remarkable portraits. These works capture family, friends, casual acquaintances and strangers in a series of eloquent, poetic character studies and collectively form a social portrait of a time, place and way of life. (NGV)
There is one remarkable photograph that stands out for me, an “essay” photograph, not just about the subject-matter but about photography itself. Like a Winogrand, it says something about the way a camera records the reality in front of it. On one level, it is a portrait of a handsome woman; on another it is a study in opposites; and on another it is a comment on race relations.
The woman is a strong and serious African American of the kind we are familiar with from black music of the 1960s (eg The Supremes) or photos of Civil Rights issues. She is neatly dressed in orange and brown colours that match her skin. Take her out of the picture and she’s still an impressive figure.
The two strangers pass each other in the street. One walks toward the camera, the other away from the camera. One is female, the other is male. One is young, the other is old. One is black, the other is white. One is dressed in colours, the other in black & white.
The man has lowered his black cardigan to reveal his white shirt which matches his skin colour. It makes a black/white shape, a signal to the viewer about the symbolic content of the photograph which inevitably is about race. Inevitably? Eggleston is a Southerner and some of his photographs note race relations in the South.
The photograph was made in the 1960s at the height of civil rights ferment. The man is ageing, his black and white clothes appear untidy and he’s leaving the space of the picture. The woman is young and well-dressed and is moving frontally into the foreground space. She looks straight into the camera. As I say, it’s an essay photograph.
Unlike a painting of the same subject-matter, none of this is planned or staged. It’s a grab shot, probably made on instinct at the spur of the moment. All of the above observations are after the fact, interpretations of something that does not intrinsically contain those ideas. That is the the thing with photography. As Winogrand, the master of the essay photograph, famously said, “I take photographs to see what things look like photographed.”
Ross Coulter’s Audience is an installation of 400 black & white prints mounted in an orderly grid around the walls of the NGV’s small photography gallery. It’s part of the Festival of Photography. The arrangement makes you smile as you enter, it’s implausibly busy and abundant, until you realise the photographs all show one thing. Each 10×8 (darkroom) print shows visitors standing around in galleries, apparently staring at off-screen artworks. It’s really one subject multiplied four hundred times, although the artist shot in over seventy galleries.
Your own stance while looking at the prints mirrors the content of the photos, so there’s not much to see. The figures in the photos are standing around like you are, but the ‘joke’ is that the visitors in the prints are looking at nothing, they are staring at absent performance art that Coulter has asked them to imagine. They are in empty galleries.
Observing the visitors to the NGV itself, you can see the confusion and disappointment, there is not much to reward their attention, since the photos are echoes of themselves. They read the wall label then go back to try some more. All they see are people just like them, doing no more than they are. It’s a curious hall of mirrors.
The review is in Artlink magazine, which covers contemporary art and ideas from the Asia-Pacific. Click here to read the full article, written by Emily Cormack. Here’s the part where my work is mentioned:
Greg Neville in his work GoooOg (2012) uses satellite images sourced from Google Earth and reconfigured as mirrored, symmetrical compositions. These configurations treat the terrain as raw material, offering a new order completely unrelated to the towns and cities represented in the sourced images.
In both Neville and Haley’s works the terrain depicted is irrelevant, the material reality of the stock or Google Earth image is discarded in favour of the artist’s creative schema. This is not appropriation, it is more like Baudrillard’s retelling of Borge’s fable of the cartographers who drew up a map so detailed that it covered the land represented so that the “territory no longer precedes the map.
Bill Henson’s big new show at the NGV is an atmospheric installation of nudes, landscapes and museums images. The presentation is of large prints in the same size and format, all subdued in tone and hung on black walls. It gets you as soon as you step in.
As an exhibition it feels surprisingly unified and whole despite the differences in subjects, it coheres like music, the changes subsumed the overall tone or timbre. Going by the solemn attention given to it by my students and other visitors, the show will establish him with a younger public and with those who may have been disturbed by the 2008 panic.
One thing, the NGV has chosen to mount this show in what is normally the academy hall, where 18th and 19th century salon paintings normally hang. As an exhibition of 21st century photographs it disrupts the room-to-room flow of historical paintings, but its fin-de-siécle style relates well to the Pre-Raphaelite and academy paintings in the adjacent room.
“The images in this exhibition are drawn from a body of works created between 2008 and 2011 and continue Henson’s sensitive, sophisticated study of the human condition, which he has realised over his forty year career.”
A powerful sense of mystery and ambiguity can be found within the images, heightened by the velvet-like blackness of the shadows and the striking use of chiaroscuro to selectively obscure and reveal the form of the nudes, sculptures and the landscape itself.” (NGV)