Francis Bacon and George Smiley

                                   Bill Brandt, Francis Bacon, Primrose Hill, 1963

Francis Bacon didn’t like this portrait of him by Bill Brandt. I can’t think why, it’s one of the Brandt’s best and he was a very good editorial portraitist. It does capture some of the bleakness of Bacon’s painting style.

The photograph was taken on Primrose Hill in London, apparently on a wintry day, with Brandt’s harsh tonality making it look like a charcoal drawing. The location can be found on Google Street View – this screenshot shows where the two greats stood to make the picture. Isn’t it odd that the cloud formation is so similar?

Fifteen years later, another notable artist was captured in the same spot, but this time it was an actor. In the television series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, from the book by John Le Carré, the great English actor Alec Guiness was filmed in a scene with the actor Terence Rigby. They are both senior spies discussing the political intrigues of the ‘circus,’ their nickname for the MI6 branch at Cambridge Circus in Central London.


HA Money

                   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, 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

Behind the Gare Saint Lazare in 2016

                                                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. 

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.

A review of Justin Art House Museum

I’ve been mentioned in a review of the exhibition Digital: The World of Alternative Realities. This is at the new Justin Art House Museum in Prahran,

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.


I’m at the Justin Art House Museum


The Justin Art House Museum is opening tonight with this exhibition, Digital: the World of Alternative Realities. I’m one of the artists in this exhibition of contemporary digital art from the collection of Leah and Charles Justin. The galleries where the collection is on display share space in their extraordinary Prahran home. The museum is open to the public on Sundays and Wednesdays, click here for details.

“The works are predominantly non-figurative and abstract. The collection includes a diverse spectrum of art practice including painting, sculpture, works on and from paper, and photography.”

“This exhibition will explore the virtual worlds constructed by the artists, examining the notions of alternate universes, dystopian visions, through to providing social commentary on our existing world.”


The work I have in the show is from my Gooog series of a couple of years ago: 

“The online software programme Google Earth is a vast mapping and surveillance project. Combined with Google Street View, it is the most ambitious photographic project in history. Through a simple mirroring process, the endless twisting and looping highways that criss-cross the planet become beautiful decorative designs, like tapestries or Persian carpets.”


That description leaves out a dystopian element to the work, because I wanted to create a beautiful representation of pointlessness. The images in Gooog are screen-captures of looping highways from Google Earth. The patterend effect was intended to create an image of futile, circling journeys like the pattern of ant paths seen from above.

The Gooog image sits well in the company on the gallery walls, as other works in the show share the same unsettling vision of the planet. Yang Yongliang, Gregory Bennett, Stephen Haley and others envision the world in vast repeating patterns of human settlement and behaviour. But not all of it is threatening. In his opening address, Charles Justin talked about the dilemma of taking a pessimistic or optimistic view of the earth’s future, joking that “a pessimist is an optimist who is a realist!”

In his opening speech, the acclaimed scientist professor Tim Flannery, linked the digital art processes in the show to the body’s own digitally encoded DNA, which produces the body’s protein. He made poetic observations about DNA, a digital system, producing the analogue protein and fat of the human brain, which in turn devises its own digital calculations for producing art.


Festival of Photography at the NGV

pieter-hugo-ngv                         Pieter Hugo, Green Point Common, Cape Town 2013

This is a big deal: the National Gallery of Victoria will be presenting a series contemporary photography exhibitions for its Festival of Photography from March to August. It will take over a number of galleries across the NGV, presenting new acquisitions of Australian and international works acquired over recent years.

Four Australian photo-artists are featured, with solo shows by Bill Henson, Patrick Pound, Zoë Croggon and Ross Coulter. In addition there will be a major exhibition of William Eggleston’s portraits, recently shown London’s National Portrait Gallery.

Other displays will include work by Sophie Calle, Pieter Hugo, Polly Borland, Adam Fuss, Thomas Demand and many others.

“The NGV Festival of Photography provides an opportunity to be immersed in exciting new works of photography, digitally produced prints as well as film based projects by both established and emerging artists.”

The Festival of Photography is a very impressive event on the calendar and will run between March and August. Check the NGV website for details of individual shows and events.

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).

Unless You Will


Look out for a new conference coming up at RMIT about documentary photography. Called Unless You Will, it will be “a weekend of conversations, inspiration and insights” and will be held on the weekend of February 17 and 18.

Documentary, photojournalism and street photography are currently having a revival round the world, not least in Australia. Printed magazines and institutional reports are the traditional outlet for these genres, but today we also have internet, exhibitions and photo books. It is a growing, confident field.

The speakers at the conference, many from overseas, are seasoned professional photographers and educators so the standard of inquiry and exchange will be high. Click here to see the list, but two of my favourites are Katrin Koenning from Melbourne and Mustafah Abdulaziz from Berlin. There will also be an exhibition, workshop and photo book awards.

To attend the conference you need to register and pay. The cost for the  two-day weekend ticket is extremely low: $99,  or $70 with student/concession. If you’re into documentary photography, you can afford that.

Lord Snowdon dies


The British photographer Lord Snowdon, Antony Armstrong-Jones, has died at age 86. He was one of the most famous and successful commercial photographers in the middle decades of the 20th century.

Already established in London as a fashion and portrait photographer, he married Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s sister, in 1960. It cemented his fame as a jet-setting celebrity and the go-to photographer for the royal and famous. You can and should read about his exhausting life at wikipedia.

A very capable photographer, Snowdon set a high standard of professional gloss in his abundant fashion photography, and in his many memorable portraits. But he never seemed to establish a distinctive visual style, as Cecil Beaton or David Bailey did working in similar fields. His place in the histories of photography is not certain for this reason, he does not make a clearly identifiable package.

The National Portrait Gallery in London has “the most extensive collection of portraits in the world offering a unique insight into the men and women who have and are shaping British history.” It has a large collection of Snowdon’s pictures, and perhaps that institute is where his reputation should stand, not as a distinctive artistic stylist, but as a chronicler of the famous and notable faces of his time. 

snowdon-margaret-1967                           Lord Snowdon, Princess Margaret, 1967

Amongst the Snowdon portraits at the National Portrait Gallery are these excellent photographs of writers, they are almost the definition of the environmental portrait genre. Magazine commissions, they were shot in square format on one of the Hasselblads he was often portrayed with.

snowdon-greer-71                           Lord Snowdon, Germaine Greer, 1971

snowdon-powell-npg                           Lord Snowdon, Anthony Powell, 1978

by Lord Snowdon, vintage bromide print, 25 February 1992                           Lord Snowdon, Doris Lessing, 1992

John Berger dies


John Berger, the English art critic and novelist, has died at age 90. He is most famous for the TV series and book from 1972 called Ways of Seeing. It revolutionized thinking about art, especially about gender representations, and it is still an indispensable text. Both the TV series and the book were extremely innovative in form.

Berger wrote extensively about art and I have in my collection the Penguin book called Understanding a Photograph, a series of short essays. The essay that gives the book its title is interesting as a fragment from another time, 1968, before the market for photographs as works of art developed.

He critiques the medium of photography as an art. Circumstances have changed since 1968 but it’s still worth reading. Here is a collection of quotes that I  underlined when I first read the book.

It now seems fortunate that few museums have had the foresight to open photographic departments, for it means that few photographs have been preserved in sacred isolation.

By their nature, photographs have little or no property value because they have no rarity value. Thus, in twentieth century terms, photographs are records of things seen. Let us consider them no closer to works of art than cardiograms.

It is more useful to categorize art by what has become its social function. It functions as property. Accordingly, photographs are outside of this category.

Photography is the process of rendering observation self-conscious.

The formal arrangements of a photograph explain nothing. The events portrayed are in themselves mysterious or explicable according to the spectator’s knowledge of them prior to his seeing the photograph.

The true content of a photograph is invisible, for it derives from a play, not with form, but with time.

Phrenological heads

phrenological-heads             If you’re a portrait photographer, you might be interested in this. The Science Museum in London is showing this set of heads from 1831. It’s a kit to train practitioners of phrenology.

And what is Phrenology? It was a crank pseudo-science of the early 19th century that taught that the shape of the skull determined personality. Yes, you read that right, the bumps on your head decide what sort of person you are.

Phrenology originated with a German physician, Franz Joseph Gall, in 1796 and it took off all over the world. It became a sort of popular science and parlour game. People believed that different regions and functions of the brain would vary in size according to ability or disability. The shape of the skull adjacent to these regions would be effected and could be interpreted by an expert through feeling the skull. It was a map of identity. Early Daguerreotype photographers would have had this in mind when they took their portraits. Is there a PhD waiting for someone to research this connection?

As you can see, a variety of head-types are included in the kit. For example, head no.54 is a scientific man and head no.8 is an ‘idiot’. One description states that “when the forehead is perfectly perpendicular, from the hair to the eyebrows, it denotes an utter deficiency of understanding.”

Look closely at each head. Do you see yourself there?

Talbot and the scullery maid

ht-mousetraps                                  Henry Fox Talbot’s cameras

When Henry Fox Talbot was inventing photography during the 1830s and       40s he needed some cameras to work with. “Legend has it that the simple little wooden cameras were made by the Lacock village carpenter, Joseph Foden. Talbot’s earliest ones looked like the simple little box on the right, about the size of a good Wiltshire apple.”  (Larry Scharf)

For bigger and better cameras like the one on the left, he turned to London instrument maker Andrew Ross, and when these arrived the bill was up to £7 for each one. This doesn’t sound too much for a small wooden box with a simple lens, but it’s about £650 in today’s money, about AU$1000, quite an expensive toy. Still, Talbot was a wealthy man and it would not have hurt.

When later his daughter Matilda got married he bestowed on her a gift of £5000 – that would certainly have hurt. That sum was almost equal to two years expenditure maintaining the abbey, his family, servants, gardener, carriages, horses, plus taxes, insurance and medical expenses.  It is roughly equal to a million dollars in today’s money so it was a very handsome gift (which of course his daughter did not receive since the law made it the husband’s property).

But now let’s consider this wealth from the opposite end – from the perspective of one of Talbot’s servants. The Talbot household kept nine servants and in the mid-19th century servants with low status would have received £10-20 per year (admittedly with room and board supplied). The lowest in the servant pecking order was the scullery maid, basically a kitchen labourer, who worked on the heaviest jobs in the downstairs kitchen. She would work about 12 hours a day and probably 362 days per year as there was no annual leave.

So his daughter, who never had a job, received £5000, and a servant who worked over 4000 hours in a year received £10. Talbot’s £7 camera would have taken that scullery maid almost till September to pay off and represent 2800 hours of hard and dirty labour.

Lacock Abbey in Autumn

lacock-1bLacock Abbey, where Henry Fox Talbot invented photography, is surrounded by its beautiful grounds – a very English park with orchard and greenhouse, winding paths and grazing sheep. If you’re lucky you can eat apples from his apple trees as I did.

Talbot made outdoor exposures with his new invention – what we call analogue photography – in the 1840s in this very place. It hasn’t changed much in the intervening years and he would have seen more or less what you see here. The photographs were taken on a cool autumn day with the trees in full colour.

lacock-8lacock-3lacock-2lacock-9   lacock-10lacock-4        All photographs by Greg Neville, 2016

Lacock Abbey

lacock-n             Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire was the residence of Henry Fox Talbot who invented photography there in the 1830s. He lived at Lacock for most of his 77 years, the squire of an extensive mansion, surrounding farmland and the medieval village of Lacock. It’s all owned by the National Trust now and can be visited through most of the year.

Lacock and the abbey go far back in time. The village was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 and in 1232 the abbey was established as a nunnery. The abbey prospered until the Protestant Reformation in the 1530s when Henry VIII dissolved the monastries and confiscated Catholic property. Lacock was sold to an ancestor of Henry Talbot and was in the family’s hands until 1944. The last Talbots left only in 2010, a family tenancy of 471 years.

The Talbot mansion was built over the top of the abbey cloisters (see below) and later a large Tudor court was added over time. The medieval cloisters and their adjoining rooms are themselves noteworthy being one of the most intact in England. Harry Potter and other films have taken advantage of this.

Talbot made many of his photographs at the abbey, testing and improving the invention that became the basis of almost all photography for the next 160 years. You can look around here and ponder the thought that he created your medium of photography right here in this place where you are standing.

lacock-elacock-d                 talbot-lacock-tower

Henry Fox Talbot, the tower at Lacock Abbey, 1840s

lacock-b   lacock-hlacock-j    lacock-o              lacock-m Colour photographs by Greg Neville, 2016

Where Atget lived

atget-house-1                    Greg Neville, Atget’s home, 2016

There are many of us who consider Eugéne Atget to be the greatest of all photographers – Joel Meyerowitz called him “our Mozart.” So you can understand how moving it was to find the very place where he lived and worked.

For many years in the early 1900s Atget had an apartment in this building in Montparnasse, the Paris area so popular with artists. The street is Rue Campagne Prémiere where Man Ray and many other artists lived at various times – you can find details about it in my post Atget meets Godard.

Atget lived and worked in the same apartment which he shared with his life partner Valentine. Apparently he developed and printed his glass plate negatives, stored and indexed them and sold them to clients, all from the same small rooms. Down on the street entrance his plaque Documents pour Artistes advertised the business which eventually attracted the attention of Man Ray and later Berenice Abbott who rescued 6000 of his negatives following his death.


Atget and me

atget-pantheon                              Eugene Atget, Coin de la rue Valette et Panthéon, 1925                   gn-pantheon                               Greg Neville, Coin de la rue Valette et Panthéon, 2016

Atget’s streets, then and now. An exercise to locate some of the places where Eugene Atget had taken his photographs in the early 20th century.

Finding the locations was not hard, they are pretty much unchanged. But the  atmosphere of the 19th century streetscape has changed, it could not withstand the transformation brought on by the car which imposes its 20th century mechanical discord and turns every street into a carpark. 

Atget used a glass plate view camera with perspective-correcting movements, hence the vertical buildings are vertical. Also, he used a very wide angle lens, the normal apparatus of an architectural photographer, and was able to squeeze in the expanse of the street. My lens is a 35mm equivalent and does not take in as much. 

These photos of mine show Atget’s artistry. You can see what he’s made of the subject, compared to what I have not. Granted it’s Paris, but he still had to find the location and its best viewpoint. His photographs are indelible to the memory, they have a unique atmosphere and poignancy; he brings out a character in the street that is not there to the eye. Atget was writing poetry.

At certain moments, this little exercise was a thrill. Standing in that doorway in the Rue de Seine to line up my camera, I realised I was in the exact spot  the great photographer had stood with his camera in 1924. I was occupying the same space as Eugene Atget had done almost a century before.

243430816_be36ba3238_b                                                           Eugene Atget, Rue Domat                                            gn-rue-domat                                                  Greg Neville, Rue Domat, 2016

eugene_atget_coin_rue_de_seine                                               Eugene Atget, Rue de Seine, 1924gn-rue-de-seine                                                          Greg Neville, Rue de Seine, 2016

atget-quaid-anjou-1924                         Eugene Atget, Quai d’Anjou, 1924atget-quai-danjou

gn-quai-danjou                                    Greg Neville, Quai d’Anjou, 2016


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 ?”



Shooting a president

a_edmonds_reaganRon Edmunds, 1981

Now that Donald Trump has been elected, my thoughts naturally turn to the shooting of a Republican president.

The attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981 came back into the news recently when the perpetrator John Hinckley was released from the mental asylum where he had been ever since since his arrest.

The shooting was a photographic event as much as an attempted murder, and several notable photographers were on hand. They were there to capture the president walking a few steps from a hotel back door across a footpath to his limousine. That fact illustrates two points: the profound triviality of much press photography, and the bizarre luck of the photographers who were there.

Thirty years ago, Ron Edmonds was on his second day as a White House photographer for Associated Press. That day he had photographed the president giving a speech inside the Washington Hilton Hotel, and afterwards rushed outside to get an image of the President waving to the crowd.

Edmonds had the camera to his eye when the President started to wave and as Hinckley fired his gun. He made the famous sequence of images that would be published around the world.

As an AP staff photographer, Edmonds did not own the negatives or the copyright. So unlike freelance photographers at the scene he did not make much extra money from his employers. “I got a $50 a week merit raise,” he says.

Look closely at the photo. It shows staffers looking in the direction of the shots while Reagan himself appears to flinch from the impact of a bullet. It’s a curious slice of photographic time that some may wish is repeated with the new president.