very important photographs from the European, American and Australian photography collection 1840s – 1940s
26 May – 19 August 2007
Bill Brandt ' East End girl, dancing the Lambeth Walk' 1938 (detail) gelatin silver photograph 21.2 x 17.4 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra more detail
People are regarded as VIPs for many reasons – for being brilliant and talented, for being rich and powerful. Some by virtue of hard work and merit, others by notorious misadventure. In this exhibition, rare and treasured photographs, from the national collection, take to the red carpet to show themselves off in all their glory. It celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary in 2007 of the first displays of photography included in the inaugural exhibitions for the opening of the National Gallery of Australia building in 1982. Like their human equivalents, there is a variety of explanations for why some photographs are celebrated, why some garner such widespread admiration that they achieve iconic status. Needless to say, big and brash or small and dignified, they all have an essential quality that raises them above the ordinary. If they were people, you would say they had charisma.
The ‘A-listers’ are well represented in the exhibition: Edward Weston, Man Ray, Julia Margaret Cameron, Bill Brandt, Berenice Abbott, František Drtikol and Walker Evans are on show with the images that made them famous as well as other images which do not have as high a level of recognition. Also lauded are our own ‘home-grown’ celebrities – Charles Bayliss, Harold Cazneaux, Olive Cotton and Max Dupain, for example. Fame is at best a strange beast: also included are the photographic equivalents of people well known and respected in their field but who have had universal acclaim elude them. And there is outstanding work from the early years of the medium by the ever-elusive ‘Anonymous’.
The exhibition covers all genres of photography– portraiture, landscape, urban photography, social documentary, photojournalism, celebrity work, still life, advertising; photographs as single images but also as found in albums and books; cut up, collaged and hand-coloured, images made with the most advanced cameras of the day to images made without a camera at all; and from the intimate to Bayliss and Holtermann’s nine-and-a-half metre long panorama of Sydney Harbour. Photography, in other words, in all its wondrous diversity.
Douglas T Kilburn 'South-east Aboriginal man and two companions' 1847 daguerreotype 7.8 x 6.5 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra more detail
Secure the Shadow, Ere the Substance Fade.
Early advertising motto for photography
English-born photographer Douglas T Kilburn opened Melbourne’s first commercial photographic studio in 1847. Kilburn undertook a speculative venture making portraits of Port Phillip Aboriginal people visiting town and reported that, ‘Upon seeing their likenesses so suddenly fixed, they took him for nothing less than a sorcerer’. Portrait exposures still took at least a minute and sitters usually had to be braced or supported. Given the restriction of the medium, the vibrancy of this image is remarkable. Rather than appearing frightened or nervous, the look on their faces is more one of lively curiosity. There was little local interest in the images and hoped-for sales in London also failed to materialise. Kilburn’s portraits are the earliest surrviving photographic records made of Aboriginal people and are among the earliest anywhere of Indigenous people.
Athol Shmith 'Vivien Leigh' 1948 gelatin silver photograph 50.0 x 39.3 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra more detail
Portraits rely so much on the character of the person being photographed.
Fashion and celebrity and photography work well as partners-in-crime, creating and selling the dream of beauty and glamour to an insatiable audience. Athol Shmith in Melbourne was able to produce work comparable with the best work coming out of Hollywood by the leading celebrity photographers of the day such as George Hurrell, Horst P Horst and Baron George Hoyningen-Huene. Working at the beginning from a studio improvised in his parent’s drawingroom he was able to establish a hugely successful career with a glamorous studio in the ‘Paris end’ of Collins Street and a large staff. Urbane and witty, he was able to charm his sitters and collaborated with them to show them at their best. His portrait of Vivien Leigh was taken when she and Olivier toured Australia and New Zealand in 1948. It was made as a personal commission and Leigh gave a copy to her mother. Leigh, in her mid-thirties, had suffered a major breakdown a couple of years earlier and the mental instability and ill health that would lead to an early death made the tour a difficult one. Shmith’s portrait reinforces the beauty and elegance of Leigh’s public persona while hinting at the fragility and melancholy that lay beneath the surface.
Albert Renger-Patzsch Mantelpavian [Hamadryas Baboon] c.1925 gelatin silver photograph 23.8 x 16.8 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra more detail
In photography one should surely proceed from the essence of the object and attempt to represent it with photographic terms alone.
Renger-Patzsch’s primary interest was in the object as a document, removed from its usual context and unencumbered with sentiment. Die Welt ist schön [The world is beautiful], published in Munich in 1928, is one of the great photographic books in the history of photography and its influence across the world was profound. It is an astounding study of the world, celebrating beauty wherever the photographer found it – in modernist structures and mass-produced objects or in plants and animals. The connection and continuity of industry to the natural world is conveyed by emphasising underlying structural and formal similarities. The Gallery has a major holding of works by Renger-Patzsch, including a copy of Die Welt ist schön and 121 vintage prints, most of which were reproduced in the book.
Olive Cotton 'Shasta daisies' 1937 gelatin silver photograph 36.3 x 26.8 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra more detail
I want to feel free to photograph anything that interests me in whatever way I like.
Instead of pursuing a career as a teacher as her family desired after finishing university in 1933, Olive Cotton joined her childhood friend Max Dupain in his newly-established photographic studio in Bond Street in Sydney. Access to a professional studio with lights and large format cameras, including a 6 x 8-inch Thornton-Pickard, gave her free reign to develop fully her own ideas – as long as it was out of hours. In some ways her relationship with Dupain was one of collaboration, in others she was treated, as she has described herself, as ‘the dogs-body assistant’. Despite Dupain’s criticism that she was wasting time photographing a bunch of flowers, she persevered – experimenting with different arrangements and lighting options – to produce one of her most-loved images and one that was included in the 1937 London Salon of Photography. Lit by one light source to give the sense of the outdoors, the viewer is immersed in the flowers. It incorporates the close-up viewpoint of modernist aesthetics and the psychological strangeness of Surrealism, while remaining characteristic of Cotton’s oeuvre with its mastery treatment of light and a love of nature which is ever present.
A collection of photography in an art gallery has to tell the history of the medium. The exhibition presents premium examples of the almost bewildering range of processes and techniques employed during photography’s first century: from the daguerreotypes, salt prints and cyanotypes of the earliest years, to the wet-plate then dry-plate collodion albumen silver prints with their fine detail that replaced the early processes, through to the graphic quality of the processes employed by the Pictorialists at the turn of the twentieth century – the bromoils and gum bichromates, the carbons and platinums and the supremely high quality photomechanical reproduction – and finally the gelatin silver process that became the mainstay of photography through to the invention of digital. Early colour processes of the thirties and forties such as Gasparcolor and dye transfer also make an appearance. Prohibitively expensive and technically sophisticated, they were principally found in the domain of advertising and can be seen in the exhibition in work by Anton Bruehl and Paul Outerbridge.
Collecting photography at the National Gallery of Australia began in the early 1970s in tandem with the start of concerted institutional acquisition of the medium by art museums around the world. The Victoria and Albert Museum had started doing so in 1852 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York set up its photographic department in 1940 – but they were very much the exceptions. In Australia, photography had been acquired by the state and university libraries, though primarily for its documentary value, and by the Art Gallery of South Australia, for example, since the 1920s. However, it was only in 1975 that the big auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, established photographic departments and the medium took its first steps towards becoming the lucrative part of the art market that it is today with its long list of celebrity collectors that includes Elton John, Diane Keaton, Tom Cruise and Madonna.
Viscountess Frances Jocelyn 'Circular design' c. 1860 albumen silver photograph, watercolour, pencil 28.0 x 23.2 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra more detail
The first formulation of policy in the Gallery’s annual report of 1976/77 stated the aim was to ‘develop a department of photography which will include both Australian and overseas works. The Australian collection will be historically comprehensive, while the collection of overseas photographers will aim to represent the work of the major artists in the history of photography’. Since that statement of intent thirty years ago, the collection has grown to include over 16,000 works. There are approximately sixty per cent Australian to forty per cent international photographs, a ratio that has remained constant over the years. It is one of the largest and finest collections in the region. This exhibition focuses on the first 100 years of photography, a period which saw photography move from its beginnings in the 1840s, expensive and confined to a large degree to the upper classes, to cementing itself by the 1940s as one of the leading art forms of the twentieth century; a ubiquitous one that, with its chameleon nature, technological underpinnings and mechanical reproducibility, seemed best equipped to serve and reflect the modern world.
Given the strengths and depth of both its Australian and international holdings, the Gallery has the capacity to successfully display Australian photographers alongside their international contemporaries. The interaction between Australia and the rest of the world was, if not as immediate during the first 100 years of the medium as in the contemporary global world of internet communication, then certainly as lively. The Australian scene was enriched by the arrival of photographers from across the world coming to settle or visit, and photographs and publications travelled between the two worlds on both private and professional missions.
Having Australian photographers and those from Europe and America together in this exhibition allows for rewarding dialogues between works: it is fascinating to compare what happened on the colonial ‘periphery’ with what happened at the ‘centre’ of cultural production, regional interpretations sometimes displaying a greater level of freedom and innovation. Photographs from the 1930s by Max Dupain are seen, for example, next to the Surrealist-inspired works of Man Ray that so influenced them; the Pictorialist works of Harold Cazneaux next to Heinrich Kühn. It is the first time at the Gallery that Australian and international works have been hung together in this way.
Edward Weston 'Cabbage leaf' 1931 gelatin silver photograph printed 1952 19.2 x 24.0 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra more detail
In any discussion of what makes a photograph special, it is well to keep in mind the American landscape photographer Ansel Adams’s observation that ‘there are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs’. When people think of a classic, ‘good’ photograph they most likely reference the sort of photography practised by Adams – usually black-and-white and a beautiful print, pristine and rarified. But great works can also take on somewhat more anarchic characteristics.
Viscountess Frances Jocelyn was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, a great enthusiast who encouraged Jocelyn to take up photography. Like others from her set, she cut up her own photographs and those taken by others, arranged them into new narratives and decorative patterns, painted on and around them and made a hybrid album incorporating elements of a lady’s sketchbook. Her album is witty and irreverent. It is also a telling and perceptive critique of the aristocratic Victorian society in which she lived – one in which England created a vast empire through its naval power, one in which everyone had their place and responsibilities that could not be shirked.
Any attempt at compiling a checklist of stylistic must-haves is always going to run aground coming up with a definition of magic and appeal that speaks to everyone. Walking through an exhibition it is easy enough to observe that an image that ‘speaks’ profoundly to one person will leave another yawning and unmoved. Having said that …
Photography is so much about subject matter and it is overtly true that to some extent making a good photograph is simply about being in the right place at the right time and knowing – either intuitively or through years of experience and probably both – the best place to stand and the right moment to click the shutter. The ability to do this is an essential skill for all great photographers but particularly obvious perhaps in those practising street photography and photo reportage who go out into the world to find their picture: represented in the show with images by Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose term ‘the decisive moment’ has become a famous attempt to define this mastery, as well as works by German-born British photographer Bill Brandt and Americans Walker Evans and Helen Levitt among others.
Anton Bruehl 'Porgy and Bess' 1942 Gasparcolor colour photograph 32.3 x 26.6 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra NGA Photography Fund: Farrell Family Foundation donation 2000
Events caught by the photographic eye in this way can be ones that change the course of world history or – as often as not – something that passes totally unnoticed by those not possessing the heightened observational intent of the photographer. The camera’s ability to transform the mundane into something poetic is one of its most extraordinary characteristics and one that is present strongly and majestically from its very earliest beginnings. Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot was one of its inventors and a great master in regard to this power to remake the world around him into one of enigma and heightened, almost mystical, significance. Talbot took the simple things that surrounded him in his rural country life – a piece of lace, a leaf, bonnets, glasses from a cabinet, the china off the sideboard – arranged them in front of the camera and through this reordering and visionary flair transformed them into photographs that continue to fascinate and give rise to debate as to their meaning.
The Gallery is fortunate to have one of the few remaining complete copies of The pencil of nature, the first commercially available book with photographic illustration. It was published in six parts between 1844 and 1846 to publicise Talbot’s discoveries – and in a spirit of defiance and counterclaim to Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s 1839 claim in Paris of being the first to capture successfully and permanently the imprint of the world onto a surface (in Daguerre’s case onto a piece of sensitised copper). There is a wonder that comes with reflecting on the sheer survival of works by the pioneers of the medium – and more so in that they are sometimes in extraordinarily good and sparkling condition. Talbot’s salt prints are a treasured part of the collection as are the cyanotypes of plants made the 1840s by Anna Atkins and the small but always affecting group of daguerreotypes and ambrotypes – one-off images that in their protective cases often have a jewel-like character.
One of the qualities unique to the medium – unmistakably present wherever it was made and discernible from the very first time a sliver of time was fixed through the alchemy of chemistry and light – is its potent and unbreakable relationship to the real. Startlingly strong and unmediated, for example, is the presence of a group of Aboriginals in a daguerreotype made by the English-born photographer Douglas T Kilburn. The subjects of this photograph have such appeal because of the way they live again in the image as intensely as when their images were captured on this polished silver iodide-coated copperplate 160 years ago. And they in turn seem to be aware of us. Present and past collide.
Ansel Adams 'Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico' 1941, gelatin silver photograph, 38.6 x 49.0 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra more detail
The sense that physical traces of their subject are embedded in photographs gives them huge talismanic power. Recording what something looks like, through historic, ethnographic, proprietorial impulse, will always be a strong raison d’être of the medium. Such considerations are important for the curator of photography but as important are the qualities of the particular print, considerations that address the technical and aesthetic qualities of the object itself, including such concerns as how it fits into the photographer’s oeuvre, into the collection, and more broadly into the history of photography as well as its cultural significance. These aspects of the work are indivisible and of equal importance in acquiring work for an art museum collection.
Rarity is always a factor in making something special and the same applies to the world of photography – more so in fact given the reproducibility of photographs. Editioning of prints has only come into vogue in recent years to meet the demands of a market. With older material it is difficult to ascertain how many copies of a particular print exist but as there was little market for photographic prints as art works, huge print runs were uncommon. There are photographers such as Tina Modotti, who worked with Edward Weston in Mexico in the mid to late 1920s, who was not a prolific printer and whose life was cut short – to have works by Modotti and others like her is always special and they attract high prices at auction (the Gallery has four fine Modotti prints). Images by Henri Cartier-Bresson have been common enough in later prints but vintage prints are extremely rare. The Gallery is fortunate to have a vintage print of his made in Mexico in 1934 that looks startlingly different to the graphic high contrast prints for which he is known. Circumstances can also change, affecting the desirability of an artist’s work. Following Cartier-Bresson’s death in 2004, the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation prohibited any further printing from his negatives. As a result, the value of Cartier-Bresson prints has risen sharply and will continue to do so.
Max Dupain Brave new world 1935 gelatin silver photograph 46.3 x 35.0 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra more detail
Having a sizeable body of work that can tell the story of a photographer’s career is indispensable in a collection, allowing for serious research and proper understanding of where a particular print fits into the big picture. As part of the desired outcome of the acquisition policy, this is especially important in the area of Australian photography – comprehensive collections of work by John Kauffmann, Harold Cazneaux, Olive Cotton, Max Dupain and Australian-born expatriates such as Anton Bruehl who worked in America, for example, are held with representative works included in the exhibition. Adding to the prestige of a collection are groups of work relating to a particular project engaged in by a photographer and this area is a distinct and spectacular strength of the holdings: Lewis Hine’s documentation of child labour made for the National Child Labor Committee from 1908 to 1924, work which was instrumental in reforms being implemented; more than sixty platinum photographs by Doris Ulmann from 1929 to 1931 of the Gullah people of South Carolina and Georgia as well as the limited edition book Roll, Jordan, Roll with fine photogravure illustrations; more than 120 images by the early modernist photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch, many of which were included in his highly influential book, Die Welt ist schön [The world is beautiful] of 1928; EO Hoppé’s rare photographs of German industry taken for the 1930 book Deutsche Arbeit [German work] on the wonders of modern German engineering and manufacturing plants. These groups of works contribute to make the Gallery’s collection truly one of world standing.
It is preferable to acquire vintage prints made by the artist in the years close to the exposure date of the negative. Photographic papers change enormously over time, negatives degenerate and are damaged and photographers also print differently – each period has its own printing ‘style’ (even a great image may not find a place in an art gallery if only a soulless print is available for acquisition). As always there are exceptions to this or that is to say cases where later prints have their own special quality. The Gallery, for instance, has portfolios made in the late 1970s of images that were created by Berenice Abbott in the 1930s for her project Changing New York, one of the greatest ‘portraits’ of a city ever compiled. They look very different to the prints made at the time the negatives were made, which are characteristically warmer in tone, but are exquisitely printed by Parasol Press nonetheless. Ansel Adams’s late portfolios, including the Museum set, are also highly prized and of the highest quality as is Edward Weston’s Fiftieth Anniversary Portfolio 1902–1952 printed by his son Brett under Weston’s supervision. These portfolios of Adams and Weston were made at the end of their careers and exist as moving testimonials: two master photographers looking back at a life devoted to photography and making an eloquent final statement on what was important.
František Drtikol 'Draped figure behind seated nude' c. 1928
gelatin silver photograph 26.5 x 22.4 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra more detail
Photographs carrying a particular history or showing strongly the hand of the photographer also lift them above the ordinary. For example, the backs of photographs by Felix Man in the collection are covered with stickers and annotations, providing an insight into the world of the photographer; The steerage of 1907 by Alfred Stieglitz is made (if possible) even more wonderful by the long handwritten inscription to his friend and fellow photographer Paul B Haviland which accompanies it; the dedication by the American high fashion photographer Baron
George Hoyningen-Huene to Max Dupain – while on a short visit to Sydney in 1937 – on a portrait of Dupain, Max after surfing, made by Olive Cotton, makes it unique and special. It has been noted that sometimes photographs are like windows, seemingly straightforward depictions of the world, the camera almost a scientific instrument of objectivity. Other times photographs are more like mirrors reflecting back the photographer. And, of course, photography must also work at revealing ourselves to ourselves. Ansel Adams noted that ‘a photograph is usually looked at – seldom looked into’. This exhibition asks the viewer to engage with photographs in all their complexity and diversity: to be charmed by the ‘stars’ certainly but also to enjoy spending time with lesser known but equally talented participants.
Great photography is always about exploring different ways of looking at the world – and shifting, even if only slightly, our perception of that world in some way. As we enter the digital age the rules are changing. The value of photography, whatever technology it employs, remains in teaching us how to see and interpret our own world with clarity, to stimulate our minds and evoke our emotions.
Curator, PhotographyExhibition dates: 26 May – 19 August 2007
Curators of the exhibition: Gael Newton, Senior Curator, Photography and Anne O’Hehir, Curator, Photography.