10
Jan
11

Review: ‘Luminous Cities: Photographs of the Built Environment’ at NGV International, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 22nd October 2010 – 13th March 2011

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A delightful exhibition of photographs of the built environment at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. The exhibition contains some interesting photographs from the collection including the outstanding Coin de la rue Valette et Pantheon, 5e arrondissement, matinee de mars by Eugene Atget taken two years before his death (1925, printed 1978, see below) that simply takes your breath away.

Atget was my hero when I started to study photography in the late 1980s and he remains my favourite photographer. His use of light coupled with his understanding of how to organise space within the pictorial frame is exemplary (note the darkness of the right-hand wall as it supports the integrity of the rest of the image, as it leads your eye to that wonderful space between the buildings, the shaft of light falling on the ground, the blank wall topped by an arrow leading the eye upwards to the misty dome!). The ability to place his large format camera and tripod in just the right position, the perfect height and angle, to allow the subject to reveal itself it all it’s glory is magical: “Atget’s interest in the variable play between nature and art through minute changes in the camera’s angle, or as functions of the effects of light and time of day, is underscored in his notations of the exact month and sometimes even the hour when the pictures were taken.”1 Two other immense works in the exhibition are New York at Night by Berenice Abbott (1932, printed c.1975) and the incredible multiple exposure The Maypole, Empire State Building, New York by Edward Steichen (1932, printed 1972).

The only disappointment to the exhibition is the lack of vintage prints, a fair portion of the exhibition including the three prints mentioned above being later prints made from the original negatives. I wonder what vintage prints of these images would look like?

The purchasing of non-vintage prints was the paradigm for the collection of international photographs early in the history of the Department of Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria and was seen as quite acceptable at the time. The paradigm was set by Athol Shmith in 1973 on his visit to Paris and London.

“Typically for the times, Shmith did not choose to acquire vintage prints, that is, photographs made shortly after the negative was taken. While vintage prints are most favoured by collectors today, in the 1970s vintage prints supervised by the artists were considered perfectly acceptable and are still regarded as a viable, if less impressive option now.”2

Some museums including the NGV preferred to acquire portfolios of modern reprints as a speedy way of establishing a group of key images. As noted in the catalogue essay to 2nd Sight: Australian Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria by Dr Isobel Crombie, Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria, the reason for preferring the vintage over the modern print “is evident when confronted with modern and original prints: differences in paper, scale and printing styles make the original preferable.”3 The text also notes that this sensibility, the consciousness of these differences slowly evolved in the photographic world and, for most, the distinctions were not a matter of concern even though the quality of the original photograph was not always maintained.

This is stating the case too strongly. Appreciation of the qualities of vintage prints was already high in the period of the mid-1970s – early 1980s most notably at institutions such as The Museum of Modern Art, a collection visited by photography curators of the NGV. Size and scale of the vintage prints tend to be much smaller than later prints making them closer to the artists original intentions, while the paper the prints are made on, the contrast and colour of the prints also varies remarkably. Other mundane but vitally important questions may include these: who printed the non-vintage photograph, who authorised the printing and how many non-vintage copies of the original negative were made, none of which are answered when the prints are displayed.

I vividly remember seeing a retrospective of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work in Edinburgh at the Dean Gallery, National Gallery of Scotland in 2005, the largest retrospective of Cartier-Bresson’s work ever staged in Britain with over 200 photographs. Three large rooms were later 1970s reprints of some of his photographs, about 20″ x 24″ in size, on cold, blue photographic paper. One room, however, was full of his original prints from the 1920s and 30s. The contrast could not have been different: the vintage prints were very small, intense, subtle, printed on brown toned paper, everything that you would want those jewel-like images to be, the vision of the artist intensified; the larger prints diluted that vision until the images seemed to almost waste away despite their size.

Although never stated openly I believe that one of the reasons for the purchase of non-vintage prints was the matter of cost, the Department of Photography never being given the budget to buy the prints that it wanted to in the 1970s – early 1980s, the collection of photography not being a priority for the NGV at that time. In other words by buying non-vintage prints in the 1970s you got more “bang for your buck” even when the cost of vintage prints was relatively low. Unfortunately the price of vintage prints then skyrocketed in the 1980s putting them well outside the budget of the Department. While Dr Crombie acknowledges the preponderance of American works in the collection over European and Asian works she also notes that major 20th century photographers that you would expect to be in the collection are not and blames this lack “on the massive increases in prices for international photography that began in the 1980s and which largely excluded the NGV from the market at this critical time.”4

The policy of purchasing non-vintage prints has now ceased at the National Gallery of Victoria.

The purchasing of non-vintage prints and the paucity of purchasing vintage prints by master photographers during the formative decade of the collection of international photographs in the Department of Photography (1970 – 1980) is understandable in hindsight but today seems like a golden opportunity missed. While the collection contains many fine photographs due to the diligence of early photographic curators (notably Jennie Boddington), the miniscule nature of the budget of the department in those early years when vintage prints were relatively cheap and affordable (a Paul Caponigro print could be purchased for $200-300 for example) did not allow them to purchase the photographs that the collection desperately needed. With one vintage print by a master of photography now fetching many thousands of dollars the ability to fill gaps in the collection in the future is negligible (according to Dr Crombie) – so we must celebrate and enjoy the photographs that are in the collection such as those in Luminous Cities: Photographs of the Built Environment.

Many thankx to Jemma Altmeier for her help and to the National Gallery of Victoria for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Eugene Atget
French 1857–1927
Coin de la rue Valette et Pantheon, 5e arrondissement, matinee de mars
1925, printed 1978
gelatin silver photograph
17.8 x 23.7 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1980

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Stephen Thompson
active throughout Europe (1850s–80s)
Grande Canale, Venice
c.1868
albumen silver photograph
21.2 x 29.2 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased from Admission Funds, 1988

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England
active in England 1860s
Houses of Parliament, London
1860s
albumen silver photograph
18.5 x 24.1 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased from Admission funds, 1988

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“On 22 October the National Gallery of Victoria will open Luminous Cities, a fascinating exhibition that examines the various ways photographers have viewed cities as historical sites, bustling modern hubs and architectural utopias since the nineteenth century.

The great cities of the world are vibrant creative centres in which the built environment is often as inspirational as the activities of its citizens, and, since the nineteenth century photographers have creatively explored the idea of the city.

This exhibition, drawn from the collection of the NGV, considers various ways in which photographers in the 19th and 20th centuries have viewed cities as historical sites, bustling modern metropolises and architectural utopias. These lyrical images describe the physical attributes of cities, offer insights into the creative imaginations of architects and photographers and embody the zeitgeist of their times.

Frances Lindsay, Deputy Director, NGV said: “Through the work of a range of photographers Luminous Cities will take viewers on a fascinating journey around the world, into the streets, buildings and former lives of great international cities.

“Drawn from the NGV collection, Luminous Cities includes works by renowned photographers Eugene Atget, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Berenice Abbott, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Bill Brandt, Lee Freidlander and Grant Mudford amongst many others.

The exhibition will also extend into our contemporary gallery space where an outstanding selection of works by celebrated contemporary artists such as Bill Henson, Andreas Gursky and Jon Cattapan will be on display,” said Ms Lindsay.

Through examples from the mid 19th century, Luminous Cities explores the relationship between photographer, architect and archaeologist with photos of Athens, Rome and Pompeii. This was also a time when great cities such as London and Paris underwent unprecedented renewal and expansion, photography served to document new constructions and also presented heroic, inspirational visions of new cities emerging from old.

Susan van Wyk, Curator, Photography, NGV said: “The works on display in Luminous Cities describe the physical attributes of cities, offer insights into the creative imaginations of architects and photographers, and embody the zeitgeist of their times.”

New York, one of the great 20th century cities, was a captivating subject for generations of photographers. Through the work of architects and the images photographers made of the city, New York became synonymous with its skyline. The images of renowned photographers including Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand and Berenice Abbott show the pictorial possibilities of the modern city in photographs that embody the dynamism of the city that never sleeps.

The contemporary art works included in Luminous Cities explore the creative ways in which artists imagine and represent the cityscape. Vast glittering panoramas taken from bustling urban communities, sprawling architectural structures and fictitious landscapes all combine to reveal fascinating insights into both physical and psychological geographies.

Ms van Wyk said: “At the end of the 20th century a much cooler, more abstracted strain of photography emerged. Photographs in the exhibition from this period range from the formalism of the 1970s to more recent cinematic visions of the nocturnal city.”

Press release from the National Gallery of Victoria website

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Lee Freidlander
American born 1934
Stamford, Connecticut
1973, printed c.1977
gelatin silver photograph
18.9 x 28.3 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1977
© Lee Friedlander

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In the decades following the Second World War the idea of ‘the city’, notably in work of American, European and Australian photographers, came to symbolize the modern condition, the best and worst of contemporary life. This ambiguous stance on the city is exemplified in the work of American photographer Lee Friedlander whose photographs of seemingly ordinary urban scenes are at once amusing and slightly disturbing. In his 1973 photograph Stamford, Connecticut, the banal vernacular architecture of suburban shopping street forms the backdrop to a peculiar scene where shoppers are ‘stalked’ by a statue of first world war sniper. Despite its witty elements, this image has a somewhat despairing tone. The women walking along this rather bleak street are isolated and anonymous, ciphers for the worst aspects of contemporary city life.

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Grant Mudford
born Australia 1944, lived United States 1977–
New York
1975
gelatin silver photograph
33.8 x 49.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1977
© Grant Mudford

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A more neutral view of the contemporary city can be seen in the work of Australian photographer Grant Mudford. After moving to the US in 1970s, Mudford continued to photograph the built environment. Familiar with the work of Lee Friedlander, and citing Walker Evans as an influence, Mudford’s photographs continue a tradition of photographing the city as an empty backdrop devoid of the bustle of human activity. In his 1975 Untitled photograph of a truck depot in New York Mudford simplifies what could be a chaotic scene to the verge of abstraction.

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2. Crombie, Isobel. “Creating a Collection: International Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria,” in Re_View: 170 years of Photography. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2009, p.9.

3. Crombie, Isobel. Second sight: Australian photography in the National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2002, p.10.

4. Op.cit. p.10.

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NGV International
180 St Kilda Road

Opening hours
10am – 5pm. Closed Tuesdays.

National Gallery of Victoria website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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