William Eggleston at the NGV

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)

                     William Eggleston, Untitled 1965-69

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 at the NGV

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.

Bill Henson at the NGV

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)

Ali Harper wins at the AIPP

Allison Harper is a former student of mine and she has just been declared the AIPP Emerging Photographer of the Year for 2017 – I’m not suggesting there’s any connection! The annual AIPP awards cover a range of categories of commercial/professional photography and recognition such as this can have a real benefit to a photographer. The AIPP, The Australian Institute of Professional Photographers, is a guild that looks after the interests of commercial photographers nationwide.

Ali was an excellent student who always brought creative surprises to class. The portfolio presented in the competition’s website show architectural subjects, but she nails every kind of subject matter, including bizarre portraits of twins that she submitted in her Melbourne Polytechnic folio last year.

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Angelmaier’s Text

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Claudia Angelmaier is a conceptual artist working in photo media who makes visual speculations about photography and art: I investigate the photographic production, photographic reproduction and the circulation … of images as well as their influence on our cultural memory.”

Text is a series of photographic prints made in the typical size of paintings in a gallery, their content is press releases for art exhibitions. Press releases are blurbs written in newsy, enthusiastic prose, although for art exhibitions they sometimes stray into heavy, self-important verbiage.

Angelmaier has mocked these purple passages by blacking out everything except parts of sentences, leaving only strange and comical phrases.

“Not only between the touched and the touching, but also between the tangible and the visible which is embedded within the tangible.” (Text 02)

“still consistent as a definition although it does not say anything precisely, but rather annotates and implicates.” (Text 03)

“which makes the question ‘how’ even more pressing”  (Text 04)

It is an open system, every part, every move, every scene, every colour, every gesture, every word consistent” (Text 05)

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Absent works of visual art are translated to a text; the text is rendered incomprehensible, then translated back into visual art.

“What remains is only one sentence or just a blackened page, which says nothing about the artist or the artwork and leaves the interpretation to the imagination of the spectator. The artist and his work remain a fictional construction.”

Boris Kaufmann, photographer

the-pawnbroker       Cinematography is photography. Look at these images from movies and try to see them as still photographs, frozen moments from real life.

They are by Boris Kaufmann, one the most successful cinematographers, who received an Oscar for his first Hollywood film, On the Waterfront, in 1954. He worked with director Elia Kazan on three films and then had a long partnership with Sidney Lumet on such films as The Pawnbroker, The Fugitive Kind and Twelve Angry Men, which you see here.

Kaufmann was a master of black & white, getting a sharp silvery quality onto the screen, and his meticulous lighting created beautiful patterns and textures that brought life to the story. He often shot close on wide-angle lenses to achieve intimacy as though he was following war photographer Robert Capa’s dictum, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

Brando-Fugitive12-angry-men

Before his glittering Hollywood career, Kaufmann had an earlier one as a leading cinematographer of French cinema in the 1920s and 30s. He prospered in the golden age of French cinema, which he helped create, working with such greats as Abel Gance and Jean Vigo.

latalante             Frame still from Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante, 1931

Kaufmann had an extraordinary life story. Born in Poland in 1906, his brother was Dziga-Vertov, the legendary Soviet director of Man with a Movie Camera which was voted one of the ten best films ever made in 2012. His oldest brother Mikhail was also a cinematographer and worked on that film. Boris Kaufmann left Soviet Russia in 1927 to avoid the Stalinist repression and moved to Paris with his parents. When World War II approached he escaped the Nazis and moved in Canada. You could say he was a survivor.

When he moved to the US, though, he was stymied by the film industry unions and had to pick up work in shorts and trade documentaries. It took years to regain his position until Elia Kazan gave him the job of shooting On the Waterfront (also on the list of best films).

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.

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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.