Obscure Camera

Obscure-Camera-invite        My new exhibition is a group show on the outer limits of photographic practice. Each artist explores some non-traditional zone of the medium: non-capture, non-representation and other arcane fields. It opens at Tacit Contemporary Art on June 8.

My works are abstract images from my Chemistry of Chance series. During  decades of cleaning up darkrooms I’ve recovered many discarded prints from the rubbish bins. Students see a print going wrong in the developer and throw it in the bin without washing it. The print sits there with the developer, silver and oxygen making chemical reactions in the dark.

By the end of the day they’ve dried out and the chemical stains are preserved and light-stable. After scanning and Photoshopping to a small degree, I’ve printed them as much larger pigment prints. They fit into my interest in entropy and automatic processes found in the border regions of photography. I see them as Concrete photography, the Swiss and German abstract movement.

It not a sign of something, but is itself something. It is not what is represented but what is present. It engenders objects of itself and thus fulfills the central criterion of every concrete art: self-reference. – Gottfried Jaeger.

Chance5                            Greg Neville, Chemistry of Chance 5


Industrial Graffiti


Christian Pearson, Return When Dry

Edmund Pearce Gallery is showing the work of Melbourne photographer Christian Pearson. Called Industrial Graffiti, it’s close ups of industrial sites he covers in his commercial photography practice. This is a well worn path, but Pearson’s images are strong and well-designed, and they look good in their brown wooden frames on the gallery walls.

Return When Dry is a good example of this “abstract-but-realist” space of photography. The subject itself as banal and quotidian as a thing can be, marks made during construction, but it’s beautiful in its way, and it it does remind you of Rothko’s abstract paintings, maybe this one.


Chance Chemistry


Greg Neville, installation at Edmund Pearce gallery

Chemistry of Chance, my exhibition with Greg Wayn, has opened at Edmund Pearce gallery, the excellent photography gallery situated in the Nicholas building.

This project is a first experiment in abstract photography, a category I’ve always been suspicious of as it contradicts the mission of photography to record reality. But after reading about Concrete Photography, a separate category from ‘abstract’ which goes to the physical essence and ontology of the medium, I changed my mind. The exhibition is a series of pigment print enlargements of scanned black & white reject prints found in darkroom rubbish bins. This may disqualify it from a strict reading of ‘concrete’ because they are interpretations, one generation away from the originals, not the actual things. That was deliberate in our interpretation, we wanted them to be our own ‘art’.

They are intriguing images. As the sun sets on photo-chemical photography and it drifts into a twilight of cult use, its materials and processes acquire a certain romance. It’s a dimension that is not available to digital photography.



Chemistry of Chance


Chemistry of Chance, my exhibition with Greg Wayn, has an invitation card – it’s official, Edmund Pearce gallery has just released it. The gallery is notable for the beauty of its graphics, and in this case Greg’s found image graces the front. The gallery is in the famed Nicholas Building in Swanston St, and the opening is on Thursday February 14, 6-8pm.

I’m particularly pleased to be showing at this gallery because it has established itself as a major venue for new photography in only one short year. The quality and presentation has been high and the gallery has uncovered a lot of very good photographers previously unknown to me.

Chemistry of Chance is a two-person show derived from reject prints found in darkroom rubbish bins. Frustrated students would throw mistakes into the rubbish where they would “stew” in the dark, changing through the action of chemicals, water, air and time. They reveal the innate beauty and surprise of analogue photography’s photo-chemical materials.

Greg and I have scanned these darkroom mistakes, opening them up to make beautiful pigment prints that are un-cropped versions of the originals.




Darkroom Chance


Greg Neville, untitled, 2013

I’m working on an exhibition with Greg Wayn to open in mid-February at Edmund Pearce gallery.

The exhibition is called Chemistry of Chance and will be an exercise in Concrete photography, (subject of an earlier post). ‘Concrete’ is distinguished here from ‘abstract’. Concrete means real or actual, a thing that is itself and nothing more. Abstract is used for works that may appear non-representational but are derived – abstracted – from representational imagery or things in the world.

This work is non-representational, it has no referent in the world outside of itself. The images were generated by the chance interactions of developer chemicals, water and air, in the waste bins of college darkrooms. Impatient students, seeing disappointing results appearing in the developer, throw the dripping prints into the bins where they change in the darkness in alchemical ways.

The artist here is blind chance, no human intention is involved not even by the student. The weird and beautiful patterns that occur are only discovered at the end of the day when the weary teacher tidies the darkroom. By that time the print has dried, rendering any image permanent, I have some that are thirty years old.

The images are selected by the normal criteria of visual art, form, colour, balance etc. They are scanned and Photoshopped to bring out what was perceived in the original print. They are not cropped.


Concrete Photography

Gottfried Jäger, Foto object 1998I

The Latin origin of the word abstract, “drawing away from”, suggests an art that started in figurative representation but moved away from it into non-representation. The careers of Kandinsky, Mondrian and Pollock all show a gradual development from realistic depiction into pure abstraction.

But there are artists whose work started in non-representation, whose thinking was already based on abstraction. The word used for this is Concrete art (Art Concret), a term first employed in the 1930s and promoted by the Swiss Max Bill. He famously declared that he believed in an art largely derived from mathematics.

Obviously ‘concrete’ doesn’t refer to a building material, but to something real and actual. Concrete artists see a work as existing in its own ontology, without reference to external images, feelings, memories or ideas. They are things that should be taken on their own terms.

In photography this is a difficult idea because the medium is “wedded to the world through the mechanism of recorded light”. Photography captures the world outside of the camera, a “quotation of reality”, as John Berger described it. If a painting is something added to the world, a photograph is something taken from it.

Gottfried Jäger has dedicated his long career to Concrete Photography, and his writings and artworks help to define the movement. The images displayed here are simple pieces of black & white darkroom paper, exposed to light, processed and carefully cut. They are from a series called Fotomaterialarbeiten – Photo material works – a suitably objective title. More can be found by clicking on his name.

In the above image, a sheet of paper has been exposed with an X and an X has been cut into the paper alongside. In the image below, sheets of paper have been exposed and cut to create the impression of a single folded sheet. Look closely.

According to Jäger, they dispense with depicting external objects and posit themselves as the theme. The results are pure images of light, photographs of photography.

A Concrete photograph attains object character. It is not a sign of something, but is itself something. It is not what is represented but what is present. It engenders objects of itself and thus fulfills the central criterion of every concrete art: self-reference.

                                                 Gottfried Jäger, Foto object 1999XV

.The archive of Jäger’s photography can be found by clicking here.


Photographic Abstractions

David Moore, Blue Collage, 1983

Abstract photography is a complicated idea. The medium is so closely identified with visual reality that any attempt to move away from it seems contrary to it’s innate purpose.

It’s featured in the exhibition Photographic Abstractions at the Monash Gallery. Different ways into abstraction are presented, and it’s a useful map of the territory as practiced in Australia.

A dictionary definition describes abstract as “having no reference to material objects or specific examples”. That would seem to make it difficult for photography, but the word’s Latin root means “drawing away from” or “removed”.  Abstract art “drew away” from figurative art in the early 20th century when Kandinsky, Delauney and others painted more and more abstractly, arriving at pure abstraction in 1910. But their abstract art developed out of their figurative art.

On that basis, a lot of photography can be described as abstract because it moves away from straight recording of the visual world, into pattern, line, blur etc. The David Moore collage above is comprised of sliced up colour prints of a road surface and sky, but it’s the elegant geometric composition that you see.

Harry Nankin, Cathexis/Fragments 11, 1993

Harry Nankin and Susan Purdey have photograms on display, but surely this technique is the opposite of abstract? An object makes an image of itself on photographic paper without the mediation of a lens or film. It’s a 1:1 relationship in scale and touch, and that sounds like realism to me. Indeed, Harry once told me the reason he moved away from lens-based photography of nature was to get nature itself to make the pictures. But the images are not realistic in the way a colour photograph is, they are more like charcoal drawings.

Robert Owen‘s Endings are perhaps closer to the abstract ideal as they are pure material with no indexical links to an object. They are Kodachrome film ends enlarged into colour prints that are just fields of colour. One of them was from a roll of film (coincidentally) shot on the day Mark Rothko died, and the image has a distinct resemblance to a Rothko abstract painting.

Perhaps there’s a problem in classing this image as abstract – purely abstract. If it was chosen for its resemblance to a Rothko painting then there is a degree of representation in it after all, even if accidental. It is certainly abstract visually, but in resembling something out in the world doesn’t it fulfill photography’s descriptive purpose?

Left: Robert Owen, Endings (Rothko died today) – Kodachrome 64, No 21. 26/02/1970. 2009

Right: Mark Rothko painting, title & date unknown


What is this? A close-up of burnt metal? A landscape painting of a fiery sky? Or a photograph of a chemical spill?

The answer is curious. Since about 1983 I’ve been collecting discarded prints from darkroom bins. Frustrated students throw a developing print straight into the rubbish, without fixing or washing it. It sits there dripping in developer and gradually oxidizes – the silver reacts with the air and tarnishes, as silverware does. I have a couple of boxes of them, collected when particularly interesting ones appear. This is something unique to the photo-chemical photography, impossible with digital technology.