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Surface beauty
photographic reflections on glass and china

11 December 2004 – 6 March 2005

Introduction | Essay one | Essay two | selected works

Surface beauty: Things that sparkle and glitter

image: Clarence John Laughlin 'The fierce-eyed building' 1939 printed 1940 gelatin silver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of AustraliaClarence John Laughlin 'The fierce-eyed building' 1939 printed 1940 gelatin silver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
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'We can recognize the world in various ways but exact knowledge can be gained only when we commence with the surfaces of objects' Ladislav Sutnar (designer, 1930s)

The Lady of Shalott by Alfred, Lord Tennyson was published in 1833. Secluded in a tower, the heroine is described as having spent her days weaving what she saw of the world as it passed on the riverbank below her window, cursed to see it only as reflected in a mirror. One day Sir Lancelot passed by – his armour 'flamed' and 'sparkled' and 'glitter'd' and 'burn'd like one burning flame together' and 'His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd' – and unable to resist such a sight she turned and looked directly down at him. At that moment the curse was played out, 'The mirror crack'd from side to side', and the Lady of Shalott soon after died.1

Written at the end of the Romantic period, the poem reveals an ambivalent attitude towards the everyday material world. Though the Lady of Shalott was punished with death for not being able to resist the pull of the carnal over the world of the imagination, as Tennyson suggests, the price may not have been too high compared with a life only experienced indirectly. It was into this world that photography was born. In the autumn of 1833, William Henry Fox Talbot was enjoying his honeymoon on the shores of Lake Como, though frustrated by his woeful sketching skills. As Talbot later wrote, he 'found that the faithless pencil had only left traces on the paper melancholy to behold'.2

Talbot was a distinguished scholar and scientist, interested in language, mathematics, botany and optics, and it has been pointed out that in an era when scientific observation was blooming, his inability to draw 'threatened his very status as an accomplished gentleman scientist'. Like Thomas Wedgwood at the turn of the century, Nicéphore Niépce in the 1820s and Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre working at the same time in Paris, Talbot became intrigued by the possibility of overcoming this shortcoming by chemically fixing an image onto a surface.

image: William Henry Fox Talbot 'Articles of Glass' 1844-46 salted paper photograp from a calotype negative Collection of the National Gallery of AustraliaWilliam Henry Fox Talbot 'Articles of glass' 1844–46 salted paper photograph from a calotype negative Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

Working from mid 1834 in semi-hermetic isolation at Lacock Abbey, his home in Wiltshire, Talbot made rapid advances. Following on the results of scientific research which had established that silver salts are particularly sensitive to light, by autumn he had achieved lasting likenesses through placing objects onto sensitised paper, exposing them to sunlight and then fixing the paper. By the summer of the following year he could produce an image in a camera – small boxes that were within the family affectionately referred to as his 'mousetraps'.

Daguerre's success in inventing a process capable of producing a fixed image, a process which would become known as the daguerreotype, was announced to the world by the physicist and astronomer François Arago on 7 January of 1839 at the Académie des Science in Paris though the details of the process were not known until August.

Not knowing exactly what Daguerre had invented, Talbot rushed to bring the results of his experiments before the public: on 25 January he exhibited what he termed 'photogenic drawings' at the Royal Institution in London and at the end of the month his paper on the new art was presented to the Royal Society. He then went back to work. By September of the following year his process had been perfected and he patented the process in February 1841. It was based on the creation of what he called a calotype, from a Greek root meaning beautiful, a paper negative which could then be used multiple times to make a positive image.

The daguerreotype was admired for the beauty of its mirror-like surface of polished silver but it was a one-off process: the great advantage of Talbot's method over that of Daguerre was its reproducibility. As an author of three books and over thirty scientific and mathematical papers, Talbot was intrigued by the possibility of his images being used as illustration. In 1843 Nicolaas Henneman, a former valet of Talbot's, was put in charge of the Reading Establishment, a company set up to produce photographic prints. Between 1844 and 1847 it is estimated that over 50,000 prints were produced and it was there that prints were made for The pencil of nature, the first commercially available book with photographic illustrations.4

image: William Henry Fox Talbot 'Articles of China' 1844-46 salted paper photograph from a calotype negative Collection of the National Gallery of AustraliaWilliam Henry Fox Talbot 'Articles of china' 1844–46 salted paper photograph
from a calotype negative Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
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The pencil of nature was published between June 1844 and April 1846 in six fascicles or parts. One of the few surviving copies is in the Gallery's collection.5 Its purpose was to familiarise the public with the various practical uses of photography. Plate III (Articles of china) shows china on four shelves – vases, cups and saucers, figurines, covered tureens and bowls. In the grounds of Lacock Abbey, temporary shelves with a backdrop of black velvet were set up to support arrangements of objects relocated from inside: he also made a print of glass objects, featuring three rows of sparkling glasses, glass decanters and a glass bowl.

Both images are sensitively portrayed with an eye to balance and harmony, and both reveal the medium ability to capture the nuances of light. It was not possible given the technical limitations of the process to photograph glass and china together: Talbot tells the reader in the text accompanying plate IV (Articles of glass) that glass objects 'impress the sensitive paper with a very peculiar touch', and that light reflected off white china is much brighter and therefore needs less exposure time than glass.

Through extended family Talbot was connected to some of the wealthiest aristocrats in England and had travelled extensively in Europe since early childhood. As such he would have been acquainted with some of the world's finest art collections, both at home and abroad, and studies that read symbolic meaning based on historical sources in painting and literature into the objects in many of his photographs are convincing.6 

The singular emphasis in others on objects, divested of a story, is all the more remarkable for this reason. In the text of The pencil of nature, Talbot emphasised the mechanical nature of photography envisaging, as has been argued by historian Steve Edwards, 'an apparatus that would eradicate the amateur's need for even a modicum of skill'.7 The images chosen for The pencil of nature often privilege the inventorial, ordered masculine world of observation and scientific classification, with the objects taken out of context, and photographed in regimented rows. They are in marked contrast to other images that Talbot made of objects shown in their domestic setting such as tables laid for breakfast with the everyday objects he found around him; images that speak strongly of life at Lacock and the feminine influence in that world of his mother Lady Elizabeth, his wife Constance and his three daughters.8

This question as to whether the act of taking photographs should be seen as creative and linked to the imagination or regarded as a mechanical and analytical form of representation characterised, if taken to its extreme, as purely manual labour is one that would cast a far-reaching shadow over the subsequent history of photography. Born and raised in the Romantic era, Talbot's photographs revel in the world of the imagination. In amazement at his own discovery, Talbot envisages that photographers will be able to compete with 'artists of reputation' and 'perhaps not infrequently to excel them in the truth and fidelity of their delineations, and even in their pictorial effect; since the photographic process when well executed give effects of light and shade which have been compared to Rembrandt himself'.9 But these representations also look forward, as the quote suggests, to the Victorian age of positivism and the desire to classify and describe the world as accurately as possible.

image: Hannes Meyer 'Studies W-2, Bauhaus' 1926 gelatin silver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of AustraliaHannes Meyer 'Studies W-2, Bauhaus' 1926 gelatin silver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
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This tension and interplay between photography's mechanical nature as a recording device, and its ability to create magic worlds is one of the fascinating aspects of this art form. Essentially what photography does is chemically fix on light-sensitive material the traces of light reflected off objects or people in the world and passed through the camera's 'eye' – the lens – an analogy made by Talbot in the text to plate III of The pencil of nature10 and by later photographers like Heinz Hajek-Halke who, in his image called Optics, holds up a lens in place of his eye.

It is entirely to be expected that the sensual nature of the surface of objects is a crucial (almost unavoidable) element in so many photographs made since photography's invention in the 1830s. Its power, its raison d'être even, is the fact that the camera records things in the real world in real time. This authentic relationship with reality as opposed to a symbolic one gives photography a nostalgic edge: for if we look at something that existed in time but which exists no more then photography has to function as a memento mori.11 It is true that in a lot of documentary photography, particularly our everyday snapshots, it is the subject matter that is of most importance. As the critic Régis Durand has written: 'many photographs (perhaps most) ask no more of us than that we bask in the serene contemplation of the represented object in its indisputable presence'.12

image: Annie W Brigman 'The bubble' 1909 photogravure from an original negativeAnnie W Brigman 'The bubble' 1909 photogravure from an original negative
Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
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In most of the photographs in this exhibition, however, the focus shifts to how the photographer sees and how the camera records phenomena. It has become almost a cliché of photographic history that what is of most interest to photographers is light. And since its invention in ancient times, glass has been regarded as almost as magic a medium as light. Its chaotic molecules are not held together in rigid crystalline form: glass is a kind of solid liquid.13

The mysterious qualities of glass are explored by many of the photographers in this exhibition. Glass can seem to mysteriously emit light rather than merely refract and reflect it. Its translucence can make it seem like a substance halfway between the material plane and a spiritual one. Nearly every culture has practised that of scrying, of staring into glass or dark mirrors, crystals or water to tell fortunes, to see what was usually hidden – to speculate comes from the same root as speculum, the Latin word for mirror.

A meditative, other-worldly quality associated with glass was explored by many of the photographers whose images appeared in Camera work, Alfred Stieglitz's seminal journal of pictorialist photography published between 1903 and 1917, as demonstrated in the delicately nuanced Drops of rain 1908 by Clarence H White showing one of his sons staring into a large globe in front of a rain-flecked window. An unearthly quality infuses the material world in many of the images included in Camera work: Baron Adolf de Meyer's still lifes shimmer in a light that places them somewhere between existence and non-existence. Similarly, an allegorical world in which 'gnomes and elves and spirits of the rocks & trees reveal themselves under certain mystical incarnations' is depicted by Anne W Brigman.14

Such mysterious moods are not confined to pictorialist photographers. Aleksandr Rodchenko, a leading modernist who was part of the constructivist movement in Moscow, suffuses his 1935 portrait of Varvara, his daughter, lost in thought, her head resting on the table behind a vase of flowers, with a melancholic mood. Strange worlds of intrigue are also created by Jan Groover, whose still life objects removed from their everyday function, are arranged in impenetrable configurations.15 Looking at her works conjures up the words of the Surrealist poet and critic André Breton: 'often the simplest objects are the most enigmatic'.16

Through using mirrors and other reflective surfaces and printing the images slightly larger than life-size, she creates disjunctions that raise questions about photography. Groover challenges our approach to reading and interpreting images, inserting meanings referenced from daily life and exploring the way we relate to the objects in photographs as if they are real. It is a self-referencing world that Groover creates; she has said that 'a photograph must be understood as representing no more than its own activity'.

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

Photographers between the two world wars often chose to focus on the association of glass with modernity. Both glass and china became favourite vehicles through which to celebrate the possibilities of mass production. In the 1930s there were few progressive photographers unaware of Albert Renger-Patzsch's 1928 book Die Welt ist Schön [The world is beautiful] which just as appropriately had been originally titled by him Die Dinge [Things], a book in which the precepts of what became known as the Neue Sachlichkeit or new objectivity movement were laid down: recommending that things both industrial and natural be removed from their original functional context and subjected 'to an aestheticism based on this new idealisation of the object..17

It was a style based on geometry, employing working methods such as unusual camera angles, repetition and reflection, that was ultimately aimed at creating new ways of seeing. It found especially potent expression in photographs made at the Bauhaus, the famous German design school, by people such as the architect Hannes Meyer.

Other modernist photographers and teachers include the Swiss-born artist Hans Finsler who was based in Halle, Piet Zwart from Amsterdam (who was at the Bauhaus in Dessau in the late 1920s) and Elsa Neuländer-Simon, working commercially under the name of Yva in Berlin in the 1930s. They produced images that were free of narrative, and that celebrated the essential nature of objects. The movement also profoundly shaped the style of advertisements reproduced in the high quality women’s magazines such as Vanity Fair and Vogue featuring work by Baron de Meyer, Paul Outerbridge, Harold Haliday Costain, and Hi Williams: photographers, whose still lifes of stylised glittering worlds of glass and shining china created the promise of sophistication and opulence.

The clean lines of modern design are the subject of Josef Sudek's images of the Czech designer Ladislav Sutnar's chinaware made for an advertisement campaign between 1928 and 1936. There is an interesting relationship here between the desire to be objective, to regiment the objects with a military-like precision, and the ultimate inability to suppress a subjective, sensual appreciation of the world.

image: Lisette Model Reflections, New York 1939-45 gelatin silver photographLisette Model 'Reflections, New York' 1939–45 gelatin silver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

The architecture of the international style, created by visionaries like Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Hannes Meyer, found its ultimate expression in the towering glass and metal skyscrapers of New York. It is architecture that allows no hidden shadowy murkiness and dark corners, highlighting that modern life in the 20th century was to be carried out in public. Modern cities are by definition full of large plate-glass shop windows and skyward-reaching glass and metal office buildings. Many photographers have been fascinated to the point of obsession with the city manifested as a confusing even exhilarating palimpsest of impressions through reflection in windows.

Lisette Model, arriving in the United States from Paris in 1938, created a large series of reflections in shop windows in New York which play with startling shifts of scale, capturing a sense of the overwhelming experience in which the photographer's viewpoint is often ambiguous. They are an insightful social comment on notions of glamour and the preoccupation with image that she found in America. As Ann Thomas says of Model, 'she was attracted to the play of light and form as an abstract phenomenon as much as she was to the content of the windows'.18

Many others, such as Lewis Morley photographing the artist and playwright Terence Greer outside Gare St Lazare in Paris in 1962, have used reflections as a playful and intriguing compositional device: here the cups and saucers on a café table are reflected in Greer's sunglasses. Other photographers have also employed the mirror as a device that adds complexity and even confusion to the image: Saul Leiter's Reflection is an example of this, in which the composition is so convoluted that it is difficult to discern what is reflected and how all the parts relate to each other.

Artists' fascination with reflections in glass or in mirrors is not new: it is found throughout cultures from ancient times and, famously, in the work of painters such as Jan Van Eyck, Velazquez and Manet that have engendered great debate over their meaning.19 Considering the magical aspect of mirrors, it is not surprising that the words miracle and mirror come from the same linguistic root. The conceit that a mirror is magical in some way, that what we see in the mirror is another world rather than a reflection of this one, is an idea that appealed in particular to the photographer Brassaï and one that he explored in his images of Paris at night.

In A couple getting dressed for the Bal des Quat'z Arts of around 1931, the male figure is not visible in the foreground, but appears behind the woman in the reflection: a trick of the photographer who here plays the role of magician. Fellow Hungarian photographer André Kertész, reunited with his glass plate negatives in the 1970s after abandoning them when fleeing the Second World War, found that most had broken. He decided to print one in its broken state. A view out his window in Paris in 1929 is, forty years later, transformed into a confronting image, suggesting that beyond appearance there may not be another world but merely oblivion.

image: Valérie Belin 'Untitled no. 2' 1997 gelatin silver photographValérie Belin 'Untitled no. 2' 1997 gelatin silver photograph collection of the National Gallery of Australia more detail

The absence of the photographer in the large photographs of Venetian mirrors by the French artist Valérie Belin creates an unsettling mood: they have been called 'fleshless reflections'.20 The extraordinarily extravagant Venetian mirrors show mirrors within mirrors. The tight framing of the shots, cut away from any context, combine with the overladen, glittering scenes to lend these images an obsessive beauty. They are vanitas pieces, meditations in the most traditional philosophical sense on the meaninglessness of material covetousness and the ultimate reality of death.

The viewer is sucked into the reflections which seem to proliferate endlessly but, ultimately, end up in blackness – it is into a frightening emptiness into which the viewer peers. The works also explore the nature of the substance which makes up the physical world and the role and nature of photography, as critic Régis Durand writes: 'photography is but the fixation on a sensitive surface of light reflected by certain bodies; and as in all truly strong works, there is in the photography of Valérie Belin an exceptional encounter between the objects she selects and the logic of the medium'.21

The way that mirrors are used by artists as well as writers including (to name but a few) Dante, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde; and filmmakers Jean Cocteau and Orson Welles is often widely divergent and complex. On the one hand, the mirror is closely connected with the notion of self-appraisal and correction and indeed, as Balthazar Gracian suggested in the 1600s, 'he who cannot see himself might as well not exist', a notion that is carried out to its logical conclusion in Belin’s mirror images.22

There is also the long tradition of mirrors representing vanity: to look too intensely at oneself is to risk falling into the trap of self-love. In the area of self-portraiture, the camera freed the artist from the necessity of looking in the mirror. And yet paradoxically photography is full of examples of photographers using mirrors in order to make self-portraits. This often adds a self-reflective quality to the image. The creator of the image becomes part of the image, often with camera, as seen in the self-portraits made by Ilse Bing and Lee Friedlander. There is a voyeuristic thrill in seeing the creator of the image, and of being privileged to view what is usually outside the frame, through seeing what is behind instead of just in front of the camera.


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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There is no doubt that photography has profoundly shifted the way that we perceive the world. As it did for the Lady of Shalott, the sensual appeal of objects in the real world has proved irresistible to photographers, beginning with the experiments of William Henry Fox Talbot at the very birth of photography and finding expression in practitioners of widely differing outlooks and goals. Photographed objects acquire an aura by being taken from their casual, often overlooked, position and put under intense scrutiny. The mechanical tool which should look upon the world dispassionately is capable of creating images, filtered through the imagination, which compellingly engage the viewer's imagination and emotions.

 

Anne O'Hehir
Assistant Curator, Photography

1 The poetical works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, London, New York and Melbourne: Ward, Lock & Co., n.d., pp.53–58.
2 WH Fox Talbot, 'Brief historical sketch of the invention of the art', The pencil of nature, London: Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1844, n.p.
3 Larry J Schaaf, '"A wonderful illustration of modern necromancy": Significant Talbot experimental prints in the J Paul Getty Museum', Photography: discovery and invention, Malibu, California: The J Paul Getty Museum, 1990, p.31.
4 Mike Gray, 'William Henry Fox Talbot, 1800–77', Specimens and marvels: William Henry Fox Talbot and the invention of photography, New York: Aperture, 2000, p.78.
5 See Larry J Schaaf, 'Henry Fox Talbot's The pencil of nature: a revised census of original copies', History of photography, vol.17, no.4, Winter 1993, pp.388–96.
6 As put forward by Mike Weaver in Henry Fox Talbot: Selected texts and bibliography, Oxford: Clio Press, 1992.
7 Steve Edwards, 'The dialectics of skill in Talbot's dream world', History of photography, vol.26, no.2, Summer 2002, p.113.
8 Carol McCusker, 'Silver spoons and crinoline: Domesticity & the "feminine" in the photographs of William Henry Fox Talbot', First photographs: William Henry Fox Talbot and the birth of photography, New York: Powerhouse Books, 2002, pp.17–22.
9 Quoted in Estelle Jussim, 'The royal road to drawing: Fox Talbot and the invention of photography', The eternal moment: essays on the photographic moment, New York: Aperture, 1989, p.17.
10 '[The camera] may be said to make a picture of whatever it sees, the object glass is the eye of the instrument – the sensitive paper may be compared to the retina.' Statement by WH FoxTalbot to accompany plate III. Articles of china, in the The pencil of nature, n.p.
11 Discussed by Claudio Marra, 'The awkward identity of the photographic still life' in Peter Weiermair (ed.), The nature of still life: from Fox Talbot to the present day, Milan: Electa, 2001, p.25.
12 Régis Durand, 'How to see (photographically)', Fugitive images: from photography to video, Patrice Petro (ed.), Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995, p.148.

13 Mark Pendergrast, Mirror, mirror: a history of the human love affair with reflection, New York: Basic Books, 2003, p.116.
14 Richard Lorenz, Imogen Cunningham: on the body, Boston, New York and London: Little, Brown and Company, 1998, p.12.
15 Andy Grundberg, Crisis of the real: writings on photography since 1974, New Jersey: Aperture, 1979, p.141.
16 Nancy Hall-Duncan's Photographic Surrealism, Cleveland:New Gallery of Contemporary Art, 1979, p 9.
17 Suzanne E Pastor, 'Photography and the Bauhaus', The Archive: Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Research Series, no. 21, March 1985, p.12.
18 Ann Thomas, Lisette Model, Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada, 1990, p. 67.
19 See Jonathan Miller, On reflection, London: National Gallery Publications Limited.
20 Javier San Martin, 'Black', Valérie Belin, (trans. Tim Nicholson) Donostia-San Sebastián: Koldo Mitxelena Kulturunea, 2003, p.133.
21 Régis Durand, ‘The ceremony of objects’, Valérie Belin, (trans. Brian Holmes) Arles: éditions Actes Sud, 2000, n. p.
22 Mark Pendergrast, p.131.