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.”


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.


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.

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

William Christenberry dies

christenberry-5c              William Christenberry, 5 Cents, Demopolis, Alabama, 1978

American photographer William Christenberry has died at age 80.

Following the example of his friend Walker Evans, Christenberry photographed the overlooked details of America’s backblocks. He captured with feeling the details of his beloved rural Alabama, its roadside shops, old churches and fading signs.

“The place is so much a part of me. I can’t escape it and have no desire to escape it. I continue to come to grips with it. It’s a love affair — a lifetime of involvement with a place. The place is my muse.”

Christenberry was a romantic and his work shows an intimate engagemant with his subject-matter. In contrast, when Walker Evans found similar material to photograph, it was formal and classical. Christenberry took the American tradition of documentary photography into areas that Evans, Frank and others did not venture. His work extended out from photography into  painting and sculpture and most notably into making small replicas of the buildings in his pictures.

christenberry-sprott-church              William Christenberry, Church, Sprott, Alabama, 1971        christenberry-sprott-sculpture             William Christenberry, Church, Sprott, Alabama, 1976

To hear Christenberry talk about his subject, listen to this  short interview on NPR. He describes about his photograph of the tiny church in the settlement of Sprott, and what has happened to it since then.

gneville-sprott-google                   Greg Neville, Sprott Church on Google Street View, 2016

Hendrik Kerstens at Monash

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-12-51-51-pm                                     Hendrik Kerstens, Paper Roll, August, 2008

The Monash Gallery of Art has an exhibition of portraits by Hendrik Kerstens that echoes the Eden project by Polixani Papapetrou showing in another room (see my previous post). Both artists include the photographers’ daughter in their portraits and use their age as part of the subject, and both dress them in symbolic costume.

Kerstens portraits evoke 17th century Dutch painting …                                            “A number are clearly reminiscent of Johannes Vermeer. The austerity of the photograph, its clarity, the serene expression on the young girl’s face, and not least, the characteristic “Dutch” light, all combine to create this impression.

However, Kerstens was not just imitating painting. As the series progressed, he became increasingly interested in the game of creating a conceptual and humorous dialog between past and present.” (

screen-shot-2016-11-27-at-6-17-19-pm                                    Hendrik Kerstens, Doily, March, 2011

Kerstens’ work is matched with a series of portraits also influenced by Dutch painting by the photographer, Erwin Olaf, also from the Netherlands. It’s a good time to go to Monash since there is also a large exhibition by Martin Parr, but they all close this Sunday December 4.

Eden at Monash

 08_polixeni_papapetrou_psyche_2016-821x1230                                            The Monash Gallery of Art is showing a new project by the Melbourne photographer Polixani Papapetrou. Eden is a series of ten intensely coloured photographs of young teenage girls posed in complex floral arrangements. The pictures are handsomely made and impress the eye largely because the pictorial space is flat and the colour packed tight in the all-over compositions.

The best of the series have models who can project some of the tentativeness of their age. They are embedded in gorgeousness, but somewhat weighed down by it. The images “focus on Papapetrou’s explorations of the transitional stages of life, particularly the loss (and persistence) of childhood.”

The art critic Robert Nelson (the photographer’s husband) writes …

A beautiful young female figure is immersed in a garden of flowers, a vertical garden that doesn’t recede into deep space but presses itself onto the surface of the photograph. The model has flowers behind her, in front of her, upon her, all around her. Her form is rhapsodized by stitches of blooms and leaves, engulfed by nature but not contained by the three levels of representation that compress figure and ground.  Robert Nelson, 2016


Eden is sympathetically matched with a twin exhibition by Dutch photographers Hendrik Kerstens and Erwin Olaf, and another large one by Martin Parr. It’s a good time to go to Monash but they all close on Sunday December 4.


isabelle-le-minh-objectivIsabelle Le Minh, Objektiv, after Bernd & Hilla Becher, 2015

Isabelle Le Minh is a French artist who works on conceptual projects that engage with the history and meaning of photography. Her 2015 work ‘Objektiv, after Bernd & Hilla Becher’ featured in the recent curated exhibition Déconstruction Photographique at the Paris gallery Topographie de l’Art.

Objektiv  is an hommage to the Bechers who refined the mode of photographic typology with their well-known grids of industrial structures. Le Minh substitutes the Bechers’ water towers and blast furnaces with a collection of antique Petzval lenses from the 19th century. Like the Bechers subjects, her lenses, once advanced products of industry, are now historical artefacts, and are studied through their typological variations.

Her pictures resemble the Bechers’ images both in composition and print quality – her individual prints are as beautiful as black & white can be. The overall similarity is striking and, after you smile, you begin to pay close attention.

The title, Objektiv, is a clever choice as it’s loaded with meanings. First, it is the German word for lens, the subject-matter of the series. Further, these photographs are close ups of things, like still lifes – the lenses are objects.

The word also refers to the objectivity with which a lens transmits light. It is in the DNA of photography that the image is captured ‘impartially’ as a phenomenon of physics, not art. Unlike, for example, in a painting where the artist’s interpretation is unavoidable a photographic image is recorded automatically by light. This is the teasing ambiguity at the heart of the  medium – photographs are recorded by a machine and always seem to be artefacts of the real, visual world.

So what is the objective of Le Minh’s project? It is so much more than a mere echo of the Bechers’ work. Objektiv is a solipsistic work. It copies the methodology and style of a project from photographic history, the Bechers’  work, and reminds you that a photograph is always about photography and always about the history of photography.

It uses a lens to record lenses, a machine to record machines and so is about the thingness of photography, As her gallery’s statement asks, “Aren’t photography’s technical objects more singular than the images they can produce ?”