Tony Woolrich has given me some boxes of old 35mm slides acquired in his furniture trading business. He thought they were special and deserved closer scrutiny and he was right. They came from an elderly couple in Malvern eager to pass them on, but other than that the name and address is unknown and the trail has gone cold.
The slides, a few hundred in number, document somebody’s travels in Europe and Japan in the early 1950s. Who the photographer was and what the travel was for is anyone’s guess sixty years after the event. There are some teasing clues though.
For one thing, they are too good for a complete amateur. Photographs made by amateurs are often taken too close or too far away, with no clear subject-matter and with a poor sense of composition, they are simplistic. As you can see, that is not the case with these pictures. They are accomplished examples of the street photography genre, made with a eye photographic eye, an openness to varied subject-matter and a good feeling for light, colour and composition.
A further clue is the expensive glass mounts, with some being cropped with special black tape. This protection suggests the maker was a professional, a photographer, a lecturer or a member of camera clubs, showing them often in public slides shows. This is more plausible than it might seem – in the 1950s overseas travel was rare and seeing images of foreign locations was a special event.
All the slides are Kodachromes, a fact which is immediately apparent because none of them have faded. That fabulous emulsion has held fast for sixty years while other slides I possess half their age have long ago faded badly. The distinctive colour palette, the contrasty “snap”, is intact, giving the images the look of glossy magazine photos. You can see what was lost when production and processing ceased in 2010. In photographic terms it was something like a tragedy and was covered widely in the press.
These first few images show what the collection is like. I’m gradually taking them out of the glass mounts to scan them and bring them back to their natural appearance. It’s going to be a long project.
Ellsworth Kelly was an important abstract painter creating stark geometric forms in pure colours. He often played with figure/ground relationships using simple opposing shapes, as in the painting above.
Despite being an abstract artist, Kelly used photography, the most figurative medium, for research. He started taking photos in 1950 with a borrowed Leica and now New York’s Mathew Marks Gallery is showing his photographs made up until 1982. The show was finalised just before Kelly died last year at 92.
You can see how his artistic vision is continuous between painting and photography, he captures the same sort of shapes and depth illusions as in his paintings..
Everywhere I looked, everything I saw became something to be made, and it had to be made exactly as it was, with nothing added. It was a new freedom; there was no longer the need to compose.”
According to the gallery, Kelly’s photographs “were never part of the process of making a painting or sculpture; they were simply a record of his vision. As such, they convey his enthusiasm for the visible world around him — the compositional possibilities…”
You can see the collection of Ellsworth Kelly’s black & white photographs at the Mathew Marks Gallery website.
Eamonn Doyle’s second photo-book is called ON, and shows walking figures on the streets of Dublin. The figures are isolated and lost in thought in a similar existential way to the elderly figures in his previous book, called i – see my previous post. What caught my eye was the richness of the black & white tones, they’re like charcoal drawings.
Both books, ON and i, have received a lot of attention from the photographic press and Doyle is a “trending” street photographer. He’s yet another example of the popularity and resilience of that genre, established in the 1920s by the Leica camera and by photographers such as Andre Kertesz. The simple sight of people walking along a footpath gives photographers one of their most enduring fascinations.
Photographer Eamonn Doyle studied photography at art school but gave it up for twenty years to focus on music. He returned with a bang. His book project i gained international attention with Martin Parr describing it ‘the best street photo book in a decade.’
I was re-discovering the work of Samuel Beckett … I began to be drawn towards a number of solitary ‘Beckettian’ figures I saw on the streets of Dublin, people I had seen passing me every day who seemed to be treading the same ground, day in, day out.
Doyle’s photographs have a singular visual quality, unlike the crowded horizontal vistas of New York street photographers like Joel Meyerowitz.
In taking these photographs, I tried to strip away many of the elements often expected in street photography – context, obvious biographical cues and signifiers, general ‘background noise’. I shot from above, mostly, and tried to flatten the figures into the pavements and roads, and I usually tried to avoid showing the face. Not showing faces seemed to be a way to evoke the very unknowability of these people and, perhaps, by implication, of all those with whom we have such fleeting, urban encounters.
Doyle’s public installation in O’Connell Street Dublin returned the photographs, and the people in them, to their original environment.
South Australian photographer Che Chorley has had the distinction of being featured on the popular photography blog Petapixel. Seen by millions every year, Petapixel is amongst the top rating blogs in the world, in any category, so having your work presented there is an event.
Chorley specialises in photography about water- surfing, diving, swimming, anything wet. His image of a threatening ocean ‘Breathe for Me’ was recently shown in the Bowness Prize at the Monash Gallery of Art, another distinction. Here is my review.
The Petapixel article focuses on Chorley’s seascapes,.”Each shot is captured with the surface of the sea at about eye level, and each mainly shows the ocean, horizon, and sky.” It presents 25 of these images. You can read the article here.
“I try to convey the romance, fear, trepidation, beauty, and power of the sea and its relationship to the human psyche.”
Alphonse Eugène Hubert was a young architect in 19th century Paris and he had some bad news for Louis Daguerre.
After the great inventor leaked some hints of his discovery of the photographic process to a journal in 1835, a letter was printed that must have given him a shock:
I so much doubt M. Daguerre’s anticipated results that I find myself almost tempted to announce that I too have discovered a process for obtaining the most perfect of portraits, by means of a chemical composition which fixes them in the mirror at the moment one looks at oneself!
Hubert was unknown to Daguerre but he turned out to have enough knowledge of the new science to force Daguerre to employ him as an assistant. They worked together for some years until Hubert’s early death in 1840, the year after the invention of photography was announced.
What Hubert already knew and what subsequent contribution he made to our medium is unknown, any records Daguerre may have kept were lost in his 1839 studio fire. He was clearly useful to its birth, but we’ll never know the details.
What we do know is that the invention of photography was not a clear-cut Eureka moment by one person. The race to invent photography and then lay claim to the invention had some other, slower, runners than Louis Daguerre, the shrewd entrepreneur. Here is a list of the known ones:
1802 Thomas Wedgewood, son of the famous potter, made camera photographs on silver but could not fix them permanently.
1826 Joseph Nicéphore Niépce made a crude camera photograph on bitumen then went into partnership with Daguerre.
1834 Hercule Florence, a French painter and inventor living in Brazil made some apparently successful camera pictures on silver nitrate but did not publish enough details.
1835 Fox Talbot, an introverted member of the English rural gentry, made a fairly successful camera photograph in 1835 but then lost interest in the process until Daguerre’s shock announcement in 1839.
1839 Hyppolyte Bayard, a public servant in Paris, announced his Direct Positive process, claiming priority over Daguerre. Not having social connections, he was largely ignored.
January 7 1839 the date that really counts, the first official, verifiable and public announcement of the invention of photography, when members of the French Académie des Sciences were shown Daguerreotypes for the first time. And yes, they liked it, they were impressed.
Todd Haynes’ new movie Carol is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel about a love affair between two women in 1950s New York. It’s played by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara and is getting great reviews.
Haynes’ films always have a strong visual intelligence, think of the stylish look of I’m Not There or Far from Heaven. For Carol he said he was influenced by the still photography of Saul Leiter, the veteran New York photographer whose beautiful Kodachromes of the city in the 1950s have recently gained popularity.
Leiter wanted to be an abstract painter and this ambition gave his photography a distinctive style. He shot into mirrors and windows to catch reflections, used shadow, blur and negative space, or shot through obstacles, all to create a dense, layered vision of the city. His pictures are complex and ambiguous and have a lush painterly feel.
Leiter shot Kodachrome slide film but he wasn’t able to print it at the time. Transparency film was very expensive to print until the digital age so he mostly projected them to groups of artists – no way to gain wide recognition in the visual arts. Now that his early work is being digitally printed it is being seen widely and is gaining great admiration. There are numerous exhibitions and books in circulation and he is now seen as a significant photographer of mid-century Manhattan.
Director Todd Haynes and his cinematographer Ed Lachman researched the period setting of Highsmith’s novel and discovered that Leiter’s images were a perfect fit. Highsmith’s tense and ambiguous world found its analogue in Leiter’s shifting, dissolving vision of New York.
Haynes filmed scenes through
car or shop windows to create a sense of dreaming
and distortion. In one episode, Carol meets Therese
for lunch for the first time. We watch Therese through
the restaurant’s dirty window while Carol can be
seen crossing the street in a reflection as pedestrians pass in front of her. (Harpers Bazaar)
In a BBC interview Hayne described how…
“the whole act of looking is foregrounded. We’re shooting through windows and frames and doorways, and doors that close and windows that have obstructions or refractions or reflections, separating us from what we’re seeing on the other side. So the very act, the predicament, of looking, is foregrounded in ways that draw special attention to who’s onside of the looking glass, and who’s on the other.” (BBC The Film Programme)
And Ed Lachman spoke about the visualising of the film in these terms…
In “Carol,” my latest film, an adaptation of a Patricia Highsmith book that takes place in the early ‘ 50s, I used a muted palate of colors, more in magenta and greens. I tried to reference the way film stocks responded to colors in the ‘40s and ‘50s and their grain structure. We shot in super 16, not in 35mm film, because film stocks have become almost grainless. (Ed Lachman in Museemagazine)
The movie Carol is in current release, but for a preview, look at the beautiful trailer.
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
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.
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
Japanese designer Dan Tomimatsu has produced a short and rather poetic film using only an iPhone, a coin and a drop of water. It shows a young woman communing with nature while musing poetically, but what distinguishes it is that it used a drop of water for the lens. The water was held inside the hole in a Japanese coin, using only surface tension to keep it in place.
A drop of water is transparent and more or less lens shaped and focusses light pretty well. The images are not optically sharp and wobble when the camera is moved but the effect is beautiful and suits the film’s content. The film is called O, a play on the French word for water, eau. Like the water drop, the film reminds you in its images of other spheres transmitting light, the human eye which itself is a kind of water droplet, and the sun itself. Click here to see it: eau-film.com
There is a reason why we used an iPhone and not a high resolution video camera. We wanted to prove that beauty exists here in our daily life, and that to do so in 2015, all you need is an iPhone, water and a coin.
The one and only water lens is achieved by utilizing surface tension,
dripping a waterdrop in the hole of a Japanese five-yen-coin.
Water lenses are fragile: they tremble in the wind,
break by the touch of a finger, but yet universal,
watching the world as a dew on a leaf, or a drip from a faucet, or water inside you.
Jo Whaley, Knows No Secrets, 1991
Still life artist Jo Whaley is an example of someone who’s early career comes back and influences their later one. As an undergraduate student in San Francisco she studied painting before her postgrad studies in photography. She then worked for several years as a scenic artist for the San Francisco Opera and other theatre companies. This job meant painting backgrounds, arranging props and working with lighting designers.
These art and theatre experiences later became the core of her photographic practice – she treats her still life photographs as small theatrical sets. The colour, lighting and placement of props evoke the stage setting of her early career, the difference is she works in the small arena of the still life table.
Jo Whaley,, 1992
Jo Whaley, Pulp Exposed, 1992
Wim Wenders, from Written in the West, Revisited
When the film director Wim Wenders was scouting locations for his 1984 film Paris, Texas, he captured the texture of his subject in a series of fine photographs. Following the success of his film, they were published in a monograph book, Written in the West.
The camera Wenders used was the classy 6×7 Plaubel Makina, the medium format film gathering in all the subtle detail and light of the American Southwest. When he later returned to the subject, near a real town in Texas that is actually called Paris, he used another medium format camera, the Fuji 6×4.5. These new images have now been presented in a second edition of the book called Written in the West, Revisited.
These photographs are fine studies of the West. They are broadly in the style of the New Color Photography, that moment in the 1980s when color took hold of fine art photography. More specifically they evoke the work of Stephen Shore whose Uncommon Places had been published in 1982.
Wenders’ images have an atmosphere in keeping with his movie which is about lost people searching for each other. The absence of people in the photographs creates a melancholic mood that adds an almost narrative quality to the images.
Greg Wayn, Amcor Factory – Last Phase (August) 2015
The demolition of the Amcor paper factory in Alphington is looking like a war zone. The destruction of this site is making way for a housing development but in the meantime it’s making some great subject matter for photographers.
Greg Wayn has been photographing there periodically and his panoramas capture the epic scale of this site. You can see more work posted on his Photoworks blog.
Greg Wayn, Amcor Factory – July Panorama, 2015
Greg Wayn, Amcor Factory – Last Phase (August) 2015
Duane Michals, Nora Barnacle, 2011
Some people just never give up. At age 83, the esteemed photographer Duane Michals has recently produced a new portfolio.
“Using 19th-century collodion prints on brown or black lacquered iron as his surface, Michals enriches the original images with oil paint, altering but not entirely obscuring the sitters’ features. Each 19th-century image is playfully rejuvenated by the addition of vibrant color and the artist’s witty allusions to visionaries such as Picasso and Picabia.”
You can see the complete folio on the DC Moore gallery website.
Duane Michals, James Joyce, 2012
Duane Michals, Molly Bloom, 2012
Michals at work in his tiny workspace.
Harold Cazneaux, Untitled (Structure B.H.P.) 1934
This handsome picture was made by the great Australian photographer Harold Cazneaux. It’s a finely balanced play of abstract shapes and it came out of a plum job.
In the early 1930s, Cazneaux was given the best commission one could imagine: shoot all of BHP’s industrial and mining installations throughout Australia in your own way. He was given a year or more to do it and the results were to be published in prestige jubilee publication in 1934. The resulting book, which I once bought for just one dollar, was full of his images in beautiful duotone printing on textured paper.
By the 1930s, Cazneaux was our most eminent photographer. He had won international attention for his Pictorialist photographs, was the first to hold a solo exhibition of photographs, had established an art photography movement, and was well known as a society portraitist and landscape artist. The BHP assignment rounded out his CV with industrial photographs of great beauty.
One of the marks of this work is the way it applies Pictorialist aesthetics to a subject normally associated with the hard modern look of the Bauhaus style. Where Cazneaux emphasized smoke and haze as a way of screening the harsh realities of industry, the German photographers emphasized the brutal steel and concrete as forming a new machine art. To illustrate this, just compare these relatively soft images with the later industrial work of Wolfgang Sievers who was trained in a Bauhaus-style photography school in Berlin.
Blast Furnace, Newcastle, 1934
Rolling Steel Plates, Newcastle, 1934
Steam and Sunshine, 1934
Gerco de Ruijter, Cropped,
Dutch photographer Gerco de Ruijter has collected over 1000 crop circles from Google Earth to make his beautiful geometric grids.
In the southwest of the USA the technique of centre pivot irrigation is widely used. Here these circles fit exactly into the square grid which was developed by the Public Land Survey System after the civil war.
De Ruijter has cropped and oriented them to fit a fixed geometric template—a circle circumscribed within a square. He is extending the tradition of Dutch landscape painting by training his eye on the natural world as it is cultivated by human endeavour. And like the later Dutch artists of the de Stijl movement (Mondrian et al) he is working in a neat geometric plan.
“What is similar in my work and that of abstract geometrical painters is foremost that we do not dish up a story or a deeper meaning. The viewer sees nothing but the image itself.”
To see de Ruiter’s video version of Cropped click on http://www.gercoderuijter.com/gerco/video/item/1025.
Gerco de Ruijter, Cropped,
The Family of Man, published 1955, design by Leo Lionni
The Family of Man was a great barnstorming exhibition in the mid 1950s and may be the most visited photography show in history. After opening in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, it travelled the world succesfully for several years and is now set up permanently in Luxemburg, birthplace of its curator Edward Steichen.
The book of the exhibition might be the most successful photography book in history. It is a complete record of all the images in the exhibition, which includes works by Cartier-Bresson, Arbus, Winogrand and many others.
The Family of Man is often derided as sentimental humanism, promoting a bland message of feel-good togetherness during the Cold War and following the Second World War. Since the exhibition was curated in America and sponsored internationally by the US Information Agency, a government body promoting US cultural interests overseas, it also attracts hostility from those suspicious of American diplomacy.
What is often ignored is the brash modernity of its design. Both the exhibition and the book were examples of progressive modernist design with their dynamic installations and layouts, and bold visual effects.
The book’s designer was Leo Lionni, a leading exponent of the new design culture. He was an emigre from Holland via Italy who brought with him a strong understanding of Bauhaus, de Stijl and other European variants of modernism. This he applied to his commercial assignments which included being art director of Fortune magazine, one of the top design jobs in the US.
To demonstrate the excellence of Fortune’s graphic tradition, Lionni produced a book to illustrate the freedom and vitality of modernist graphics. Designs for the Printed Page was intended as a spur to advertisers and editors to embrace contemporary ideas of graphic design.
Leo Lionni, Designs for the Printed Page, late 1950s
Lionni had already demonstrated that freedom in his layouts for Family of Man. Using asymmetric layouts, contrasts of scale, patterned layouts, overlaps and occasional full-bled pages, the book had a dynamic feel that aligned with the exhibition’s positive message.
Individual photographs were subservient to the page layouts which levelled all the photographs and their individual messages to the book’s overall message. This was a cause of irritation amongst some photographers and a handful withdrew from the project. Those that stayed saw their photographs reduced both in size and individuality, but also had them, and their own names, printed worldwide four million times, because that was how many books were sold.
Claudia Angelmaier, Betty, 2008
Leipzig artist Claudia Angelmaier uses photography to make conceptual art works. She is interested in the medium’s powers of reproduction, what goes on in the generation of printed copies, the maintenance of colour accuracy in the reproductive process, its slippages and errors.
In the project Plants and Animals a collection of art books opened to show the same painting demonstrate the varieties of hue and tone that occurs in printed reproduction. In another project called Colour and Gray she made geometric abstractions out of the grey cards and colour scales used to ensure colour control in repro photography.
The project here is called Works on Paper featuring the back of postcards of famous paintings. The image above is the back of a postcard of Gerhard Richter’s painting Betty. In this work his stated aim was to create a photograph, not through the medium of photography, but through painting. A painting that aspired to the condition of photography, through photorealism.
Angelmeier places the postcard on a lightbox and photographs through the back. We clearly see the print on the back identifying the painting, but only see the painting itself – or its reproduction – faintly. Her series is a further chapter to Walter Benjamin’s essay the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. As a work of conceptual art, Angelmaier’s picture is a photograph of a postcard of a repro photo of a painting of a photograph!
Claudia Angelmaier, La Baigneuse Valpincon, 2008
Apart from this circular dance of image reproduction, her series has a further subject. In each picture she has chosen a painting of a woman, a woman seen from behind…
For the series “Works on Paper” I collected art picture postcards showing rear-view figures, nude or seminude female figures depicted from behind. I photographed the printed versos of the postcards so that the front motif, the female figure, shown in mirror image, is only vaguely discernable. The contemplative viewing of that female figure is actually disrupted by the postcards typography. So the context of the image is revealed whereas at the same time the identity of the female figures depicted remain concealed.
Jo Whaley has been making still lifes since the 1980s and her work has been widely published and exhibited. Her book The Theater of Insects came out in 2008 and contains many of her beautiful colour photographs.
The blurb states that she “… constructs mesmerizing scenes with vibrantly colored bugs that echo the tradition of natural history dioramas, but are artfully placed against weathered, man-made backgrounds. The result is a compelling marriage of natural and artificial, art and science.”
species of South Indian butterfly known as the Common Wanderer; it is a beautifully ‘designed’ creature. Whaley’s photograph shows a male and female arranged on top of a medical illustration labelled ‘pelvis of the man and the woman’. It shows the differences between the sexes and the resemblance between species.
Acrocinus longimanus is known as the harlequin beetle because of its elaborate coloured pattern on its back. It is native to Central and South America, although it seems to want the whole world with its absurdly long forelegs.
Jo Whaley at work on.
Whaley talks about her practice in terms of theatricality; the still lifes are arranged with the same kind of detail as stage sets. The props, backgrounds, lighting and colour only come to life when every element is in place. She learnt this skill when she worked for the San Francisco Opera as a scenic artist, fresh out of art school where she majored in painting. In a way, she is still a painter and still a scenic artist.
“The difficulty with the still-life genre is that one has to animate the inanimate. My approach is to consider the still-life set as a theatrical stage, where the backdrops are fabricated and the objects are positioned to create a visual dialogue. In designing the set, I take my lead by considering the aesthetics that are apparent in the insects themselves.”
Jo Whaley,, 2007