Surface beauty
photographic reflections on glass and china

11 December 2004 – 6 March 2005

Introduction | Essay one | Essay two | selected works

Clarence H White 'Drops of rain' 1903 from 'Camerawork' photogravure off an original negative Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
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Since the invention of the medium in the 1830s photographers have been mesmerised by the camera's ability to beautifully and sometimes ruthlessly, capture every nuance of the surface of objects. The Surface Beauty exhibition puts on display some of the most fascinating photographs in the collection of the National Gallery, spanning across the whole history of the medium from the 1840s to the present, in images ranging in mood from the ebullient to the dreamy and meditative.

The National Gallery of Australia holds one of the greatest works of art from the dawn of photography; an extremely rare complete copy of the world's first commercially available book illustrated with photographs called The Pencil of Nature and published in fascicles between 1844 and 1846 by William Henry Fox Talbot, the British inventor of photography on paper. From the beginning Talbot was interested in the ways that photography would be able to be used to disseminate knowledge through reproductions. In 1843 he established the first commercial photographic company in Reading and it is estimated that between 1844 and 1847 over 50,000 prints were made there.

The Pencil of Nature was an extraordinary prediction of what the new medium of photography could hope to achieve. Talbot photographed pieces from his own collection of china and glass at his home, Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire, to show the camera's special facility in rendering different surface qualities. Unlike the other first method of fixing an image, formed through light alone, onto a surface — also invented in the 1830s — by Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre in Paris which resulted in a unique photograph on a copper plate, Talbot's system was based on making a negative from which a multiple number of positive prints could be made.

image: William Henry Fox Talbot 'Articles of Glass' 1844-46 salted paper photograp from a calotype negative Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
William Henry Fox Talbot 'Articles of Glass' 1844–46 salted paper photograph from a calotype negative Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
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A distinguished scientist and scholar of wide-ranging interests, Talbot was naturally interested exploring how photography could be used to classify and illustrate the world in an accurate way. His objects of china and glass are not shot in their habitual everyday situation or function, but instead were photographed on shelves set up in the gardens of his home, stripped of any story-telling ability, of any symbolist meaning. Instead what fascinates Talbot is that substance without which photography could not exist: light. And glass is almost as fascinating a thing as light. Glass reflects and refracts light simultaneously and Talbot is interested here and throughout his photography in what happens when light hits different materials, he situates the photograph of china next to that of the glass to highlight the differences — and indeed he often photographs the same object obsessively over and over from different angles, in different light conditions, with light coming from different directions. Deprived of a narrative, the photographs are very much about the objects alone. He claimed that he began experimenting with trying to fix an image on a surface because of his woeful drawing abilities, and yet despite this the photographs reveal an artist's sensibility: a sensuous observation of the world around him combined with a sophisticated concern for balance and harmony.

The Pencil of Nature is the most treasured work in the collection, so delicate are the photographs that it has been exhibited only once before. The exhibition Surface Beauty takes Talbot's visionary ideas as inspiration and plumbs the Gallery's rich collection of international photography to show how later generations of great photographers have explored the visual qualities of china and glassware.

image: Albert Renger-Patzsch 'Glasses' c.1927 gelatin silver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia Albert Renger-Patzsch 'Glasses' c.1927 gelatin silver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia  more detail

Still life photography is a major preoccupation of photographers. In the nineteenth century the motivation was often the desire to catalogue objects. In the development of modernism especially between the two great wars provided the occasion for formal invention and sophisticated design. Photographers exploring the notion of modernism in photography are another great strength of the collection. The collection includes for example the images by Albert Renger-Patzsch used to produce the 1928 book, Die Welt ist Schön, containing photographs from the world of nature and the world of technology. Again like the Talbot images in the show, the object is again shown here free of narrative, and the stylistic innovations of modernistic photography, can seen in Renger-Patzsch's book which became almost a modernist bible across the world: repetition, an emphasis on geometric pattern.

Many photographers from the Bauhaus, the famous German school of architecture and design that existed in Germany through the twenties to the early thirties are also included in the show and in their inventiveness reflects the extraordinary mix of great architects and artists that studied there. Modern glass and chinaware served their purpose well as representing the new world. The mass production of everyday items was reflected in new china design with its clean and simple lines. Glass has almost come to represent the modern city — the material of choice for architects such as Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Photographers such as Lisette Model became fascinated in the 1940s, newly arrived from Europe in photographing New York through its shopfronts, creating rich multilayered effects which for her best expressed the experience of the vitality — as well as the vanity — of the new world.

image: William Henry Fox Talbot 'Articles of Glass' 1844-46 salted paper photograp from a calotype negative Collection of the National Gallery of AustraliaHannes Meyer 'Studies W-2, Bauhaus' 1926 gelatin silver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

Glass can glow in ways that seem almost unworldly and glass and mirrors have a rich and complex social history across all cultures. Most have a history of 'scrying', meaning glass or crystal gazing, to perceive of realities or truths beyond the material world. There is a meditative strain that runs through the exhibition, from the Pictorial photographers working at the beginning of the twentieth century many of which were reproduced in Camera Work, in Alfred Stieglitz's seminal journal published between 1903 and 1917. Mysterious images of sometimes otherworldly figures holding glass bubbles appear throughout and it is clear that the photographers are interested above all in light and how it is reflected. Nowhere is this more beautifully illustrated than in Clarence H White's delicately nuanced image of one of his sons next to a glass globe in front of a rain streaked window. In many of the images in the exhibition the way that reflections either in windows or mirrors have caught the imagination of photographers is illustrated and they are photographs that show a joy in the visual ambiguities and compositional confusion and syncopation that arises.


Anne O'Hehir
Assistant Curator Photography