27
Sep
15

Exhibition: ‘Colour my world: handcoloured Australian photography’ at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Exhibition dates: 3rd April – 30th September 2015

 

There has always been a history of hand colouring in photography since its very early days – from daguerreotypes, through ambrotypes, cartes de visite, cabinet cards and on to commercial portrait photography from the 1920s – 1960s. But I don’t believe there has ever been, in the history of photography, such a concentration of artists (mainly female) hand colouring photographs as in Australia in the 1970s-80s. If I know my history of photography, I would say that this phenomena is unique in its history. It did not occur in Japan, Europe or America at the same time.

The reasons for this explosion of hand colouring in Australia are many and varied. Most of the artist’s knew each other, or knew of each other’s work on the East coast of Australia, and it was a small, tight circle of artists that produced these beautiful photographs. Not many artists were “doing” traditional colour photography, basically because of the instability of the materials (you only have to look at the faded colour photographs of John Cato in the National Gallery of Victoria’s collection) and the cost of the process. Of course feminism was a big influence in Australia at this time but these photographs, represented in this posting by the work of Micky Allan and Ruth Maddison, are so much more than photographs about female emancipation.

Photography in Australia was moving away from commercial studios such as that of Athol Shmith and into art schools and university courses, where there was a cross-over between different disciplines. Most artists had darkrooms in their bathroom or outhouses, or darkrooms were in basements of university buildings. Speaking to artist Micky Allan, she said that these were exciting times. Allan had trained as a painter and brought these skills to the processes of photography. She observes, “There was an affinity to what you were doing, an immediacy of engagement. Taking photographs, the physicality of the print, their magnificent tonal range – which painting could not match – and then hand colouring the resultant prints, a hands on process that turned the images into something else, something different.” There was a cavalier approach to the process but also a learning atmosphere as well. So it was about doing anything that you wanted, you just had to do it.

Sue Ford was a big influence, in that she started working in series of work, not just the monolithic, singular fine art print. Perhaps as a reaction against the Americanisation of photography, these artists used vernacular photographs of people and places to investigate ways of being in the world. As Micky Allan observes, “My photography of babies and old people were more than being about domesticity, they were about what babies know when they arrive in the world, and how people react to ageing.” (For examples of Allan’s babies and old people photographs please see the exhibition Photography meets Feminism: Australian Women Photographer 1970s-80s). There was a connection to the print through the physicality of the process of printing and then hand colouring – a double dealing if you like – that emphasised the ordinary can be extraordinary, a process that changed one representation into another. And the results could be subtle (as in the delicate work of Janina Green) or they could be surreal, such as Allan’s The prime of life no.7 (man wearing sun glasses) (1979, below), or they could be both. But they were always stunningly beautiful.

This was a very hands on process, an observation confirmed by artist Ruth Maddison. “The process was like hand watering your garden, an intense exchange and engagement with the object. When I started I was completely untrained, but I loved the process. I just experimented in order to understand what medium does what on what paper surface. There was the beauty of its object and its physicality. I just loved the object.” Her series Christmas holiday with Bob’s family, Mermaid Beach, Queensland (1977/78, below), photographed over Christmas Day and several days afterwards, evidences this magical transformation. Vernacular photographs of a typical Australia Christmas holiday become something else, transformed into beautiful, atypical representations of family, friendship, celebration and life.

So there we have it: domesticity, family, friends, place, being in the world, feminism, craft, experimentation, surrealism, physicality of the object, beauty, representation, series of work and difference… a communion (is that the right word?) of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially on a spiritual level (although the artists probably would not say it) that changed how the they saw, and we see the world. Can you imagine how fresh and alive these images would have been in 1970s Australia? That they still retain that wonder is testament to the sensitivity of the artists, the tactility of the process and our responsiveness to that sense of touch.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

.
Many thankx to the National Gallery of Australia for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Micky Allan. 'The prime of life no.3 (blond woman wearing sun glasses)' 1979

 

Micky Allan (Melbourne born 1944)
The prime of life no.3 (blond woman wearing sun glasses)
1979
From a series of 12 hand coloured photographs Mountain Lagoon, Sydney Blue Mountains, New South Wales 1979
Gelatin silver photograph, hand-coloured in pencil and watercolour
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1981
© Micky Allan

 

Micky Allan. 'The prime of life no. 7 (man wearing sun glasses)' 1979

 

Micky Allan (Melbourne born 1944)
The prime of life no.7 (man wearing sun glasses)
1979
From a series of 12 hand coloured photographs Mountain Lagoon, Sydney Blue Mountains, New South Wales 1979
Gelatin silver photograph, hand-coloured in pencil, colour pencils, watercolour and gouache
32.0 h x 42.7 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1981
© Micky Allan

 

Ruth Maddison. 'Christmas holiday with Bob's family, Mermaid Beach, Queensland' 1977/78

 

Ruth Maddison (Australia born 1945)
Christmas holiday with Bob’s family, Mermaid Beach, Queensland
1977/78
Gelatin silver photographs, colour dyes, hand-coloured
10.6 x 16.2 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1988

 

Ruth Maddison. 'Christmas holiday with Bob's family, Mermaid Beach, Queensland' 1977/78

 

Ruth Maddison (Australia born 1945)
Christmas holiday with Bob’s family, Mermaid Beach, Queensland
1977/78
Gelatin silver photographs, colour dyes, hand-coloured
10.6 x 16.2 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1988

 

Ruth Maddison. 'Christmas holiday with Bob's family, Mermaid Beach, Queensland' 1977/78

 

Ruth Maddison (Australia born 1945)
Christmas holiday with Bob’s family, Mermaid Beach, Queensland
1977/78
Gelatin silver photograph, colour pencils, fibre-tipped pen
10.6 x 16.2 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1988

 

Ruth Maddison. 'Christmas holiday with Bob's family, Mermaid Beach, Queensland' 1977/78

 

Ruth Maddison (Australia born 1945)
Christmas holiday with Bob’s family, Mermaid Beach, Queensland
1977/78
Gelatin silver photographs, colour dyes, hand-coloured
10.6 x 16.2 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1988

 

Ruth Maddison. 'Jesse and Roger' 1983

 

Ruth Maddison  (Australia born 1945)
Jesse and Roger
1983
From the series Some men
Gelatin silver photograph, colour pigments, hand-coloured
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1983

 

Ruth Maddison. 'Jim and Gerry' 1983

 

Ruth Maddison  (Australia born 1945)
Jim and Gerry
1983
From the series Some men
Gelatin silver photograph, colour pigments, hand-coloured
Image 39.6 h x 26.5 w cm; sheet 41.5 h x 29.0 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1983

 

 

Colour my world

Introduction

This is the first exhibition dedicated to a significant aspect of recent Australian art: the handcoloured photograph. It draws together new acquisitions and rarely seen works from the collection by Micky Allan, Ruth Maddison, Warren Breninger, Julie Rrap, Janina Green, Christine Barry, Fiona Hall, Miriam Stannage, Robyn Stacey, Nici Cumpston, Lyndell Brown, Charles Green and Jon Cattapan.

The handcolouring of images has a long history in photography. During the infancy of the medium in the mid nineteenth century, the practice of applying paint, dye or other media to a photograph added both lifelike colour to black-and-white pictures and longevity to images that faded quickly. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, handcolouring added economic value and artistic sensibility or corrected photographic mistakes. But, by the middle of the twentieth century, the practice had gone into decline, as photographers sought to maintain and fortify the virtuosity and technical purity of the modernist photographic print.

The 1970s saw a revival of handcolouring among a number of Australian photographers and it remains a significant aspect of contemporary practice. The artists included in this exhibition seek to create a direct connection between their experience and that of the viewer. They challenge the medium’s technical sameness by personalising the print and imbuing it with individuality and uniqueness as well as an intimacy, warmth and fallibility.

 

Challenging conventions

During much of the twentieth century, photography tended to engage with the medium’s technical integrity. Rhetoric about black-and-white photography’s very particular, direct relationship to the world, its technological origins and its highly idiosyncratic capacity to see the world in new ways positioned it in a conceptual space distinct from other kinds of pictures. With notable exceptions, those who dominated the scene worked in black and white. Colour photography (which was expensive) tended to belong to and be associated with the commercial realms of advertising and fashion.

In this climate, to bring colour into the image through handcolouring was an act of resistance. Anyone who took to their prints with colour pencils and brushes, in effect, disputed the so-called authority of black-and-white photography. And many did just this. For feminist photographers, handcolouring acknowledged the under-recognised history of women’s photographic work by remembering the women who were historically employed by studios as handcolourists.

Colouring by hand personalised the print, itself the product of technological processes, arcane knowledge and chemistry. The handcoloured photograph also created community: it engaged a direct connection between the photographer and his or her subjects, the sensual surface of the print and the viewer, a set of relationships staged and made manifest in the experience of the work itself.

 

Handcoloured photography as an aesthetic

While the disrupted surface of the handcoloured photograph may well have challenged the conventions of ‘classic’ photography during the 1970s, it became one of a set of tools used by artists during the 1980s to explore the medium as a studio practice and to interrogate the conventions of authorship and photographic transparency that had supported modernist photographic practice.

Artists such as Julie Rrap, Fiona Hall and Robyn Stacey created handmade work that presented highly personalised responses to some of the grand themes of Western art and culture. Hall tackled one of Western mythology’s points of origin, the Garden of Eden, in a series of hand-toned pictures that replaced pathos and grand narrative with irony and, through daubs of sepia, the patina of historical significance. Rrap took on art history’s archetypes of femininity and made them her own, while Stacey handcoloured photographs to modify many of the myths of popular culture and Australian history. Rrap’s and Stacey’s handcoloured originals were then rephotographed and printed in colour. By doing so, the works shifted from being unique prints – with references to the handmade, the artist’s studio and the careful rendering of places and times – to being images that resembled those found in the mass media.

 

Reconnecting with history and objects

Associated with the rapidly expanding use of digital photography in the 1990s and perhaps in response to the immateriality of photography today (images are now mostly taken, stored and shared electronically), we have seen a reconnection with the medium’s history and a return to the photographic object in contemporary practice. Handcolouring draws our attention to materiality and re-introduces tactility to the photographic experience. It also engages community in a very particular way, establishing social ties between makers and between artists and viewers. Handcolouring demonstrates that even though digitisation has impacted significantly on the accessibility and scale of contemporary practice, many of photography’s rituals, motivations and pleasures remain the same.

For the artists included in this exhibition, handcolouring connects them to the history of photography in strategic ways. Nici Cumpston handcolours large-scale landscapes of the Murray-Darling river system as a way of documenting traces of Indigenous occupation and use and of bringing to our attention the decline of the area’s delicately balanced ecosystems. The handcoloured works of collaborators Charles Green, Lyndell Brown and Jon Cattapan remind us that an essential part of the experience of photography has always been the embodied, social experience of it. For Janina Green, the act of handcolouring prints allows her to engage with and remember the medium’s history of cross-cultural innovation.

Wall text (same text on the website)

 

Julie Rrap. 'Puberty' 1984

 

Julie Rrap (born Lismore, New South Wales 1950; lives and works Sydney)
Puberty
1984
From the series Persona and shadow
Direct positive colour photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Kodak (Australasia) Pty Ltd Fund 1984

 

 

This photograph is from the series of nine works titled Persona and shadow. Julie Rrap produced this series after visiting a major survey of contemporary art in Berlin (Zeitgeist, 1982) which only included one woman among the 45 artists participating in the exhibition. Rrap responded to this curatorial sexism with a series of self-portraits in which she mimics stereotypical images of women painted by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Each pose refers to a female stereotype employed by Munch: the innocent girl, the mother, the whore, the Madonna, the sister, and so on.

Appropriating the work of other artists is one of the strategies that characterises the work of so-called ‘postmodern’ artists active during the 1980s. The practice of borrowing, quoting and mimicking famous artworks was employed as a way of questioning notions of authenticity. Feminist artists tended to use appropriation to specifically question the authenticity of male representations of females. In more straightforward terms, Rrap reclaims Munch’s clichéd images of women and makes them her own. Rrap ultimately becomes an imposter, stealing her way into these masterpieces of art history, but the remarkable thing about these works is the way that the artist foregrounds the process of reappropriation itself. The procedure of restaging, collage, overpainting, and rephotographing becomes part of the final image, testifying to a d0-it-herself politic.

 

Miriam Stannage. 'The flood' from the series 'News from the street' 1984

 

Miriam Stannage (Northam, Western Australia, Australia born 1939)
The flood from the series News from the street
1984
Gelatin silver photograph, colour dye
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1990
© Miriam Stannage

 

Miriam Stannage. 'War' from the series 'News from the street' 1984

 

Miriam Stannage (Northam, Western Australia, Australia born 1939)
War from the series News from the street
1984
Gelatin silver photograph, colour dye
40.6 h x 50.8 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1990
© Miriam Stannage

 

Janina Green. 'Untitled' 1988

 

Janina Green (Essen, Germany born 1944; Australia from 1949)
Untitled [Washing in basket]
1988
Gelatin silver photograph, photo oils
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1989

 

Janina Green. 'Untitled' 1988

 

Janina Green (Essen, Germany born 1944; Australia from 1949)
Untitled [White cup on tray]
1988
Gelatin silver photograph, photo oils
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1989

 

Nici Cumpston. (Barkindji/Paakintji peoples) 'Scar tree, Fowler's Creek' 2011

 

Nici Cumpston (Adelaide, South Australia, Australia born 1963)
Barkindji/Paakintji peoples
Scar tree, Fowler’s Creek
2011
From the series having-been-there
Archival inkjet print hand coloured with synthetic polymer paint
98.0 x 177.0 cm
Collection of the artist/Courtesy of the artist

 

Nici Cumpston (Barkindji/Paakintji peoples) 'Campsite V, Nookamka Lake' 2008

 

Nici Cumpston (Adelaide, South Australia, Australia born 1963)
Barkindji/Paakintji peoples
Campsite V, Nookamka Lake
2008
Inkjet print on canvas, hand-coloured with pencil and watercolour
Image 77 h x 206 w cm framed (overall) 762 h x 2045 w x 42 d mm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2011

 

 

The once rich and thriving environment of the Murray and Darling River system with its clear waterways, lush flora and abundant fauna was home to the Barkindji, Muthi Muthi and Nyampa peoples.

The shallow Nookamka Lake (Lake Bonney), which connects to the Murray River in South Australia, is the subject of Nici Cumpston’s recent photographic series. However, the series is not of a lush utopia but of the degradation and erosion that has consumed the lake since the forced irrigation flooding of the waterways in the early 1900s.

When damming ceased in 2007, the water began to subside, slowly revealing the original landscape and the history of human occupation. Cumpston beautifully documents this stark landscape and the demise that salinisation and destructive water management practices have wrought on the people and their lands. Today, the landscape is desolate, scattered with twisted and broken trees stripped of their foliage like majestic sentinels in deathly poses. The trees still bare the scars – although obscured by dark tidelines – where canoes, containers and shields were cut from their trunks.

Cumpston highlights these clues to the area’s original inhabitants through the delicate and precise hand-watercolouring of the printed black-and-white photographs on canvas. She does not aim to replicate the original colours of the landscape, as a colour photograph would, but to interpret it, re-introducing the Aboriginal presence within the landscape – a subtle reconnection to Country and reminder of past cultural practices and knowledge. As the artist says, “I am finding ways to talk about connections to country and to allow people to understand the ongoing connections that Aboriginal people maintain with their traditional lands.”

Tina Baum
Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art
Art Gallery of New South Wales

 

Warren Breninger. 'Expulsion of Eve [No.3]' 1978

 

Warren Breninger (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia born 1948)
Expulsion of Eve [No.3]
1978
Gelatin silver photograph, chinagraph, decal lettering gelatin silver photograph
Image 49.7 h x 36.7 w cm
Gift of the Philip Morris Arts Grant 1982

 

Warren Breninger. 'Expulsion of Eve [No.12]' 1978

 

Warren Breninger (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia born 1948)
Expulsion of Eve [No.12]
1978
Type C colour photograph, ink, crayon
Image 49.8 h x 37.0 w cm
Gift of the Philip Morris Arts Grant 1982

 

Warren Breninger. 'Expulsion of Eve [No.15]' 1978

 

Warren Breninger (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia born 1948)
Expulsion of Eve [No.15]
1978
Photograph, gum arabic print, acrylic paint, crayon, pencil
Image 49.8 h x 37.0 w cm
Gift of the Philip Morris Arts Grant 1982

 

 

The Expulsion of Eve series is in essence a single work which the artist returns to continually to develop and re-work the same image. ‘Number 16’, highly indicative of the series, is a photographic image of a young woman, the print having undergone many transformative processes including being cut out, reapplied, incised, worn back, applied with colour, stripped of colour and re-drawn. Interrogating notions of reality, Breninger expresses his personal and artistic concerns relating to ‘the rift between appearances and what is real’; ideas informed by his deep Christian faith.1

His subject, Eve, is not chosen symbolically as a female archetype; rather, the artist reasons, “because I believe in her historically and all humanity is her descendents”.2 Breninger’s Eve, in her features and expression, suggests a presence caught between the worlds of childhood and adulthood, innocence and intent, the temporal and corporeal. While there is a Christ-like surrender in the pose, Breninger’s Eve also has a strong correlation with Edvard Munch’s ‘Madonna’, both visually and in terms of the obsessive process by which the artist revisits the image.

The artist’s belief that ‘cameras create an appetite for ghosts, for vapour, for beings of steam that we can never embrace, that will elude us like every photo does’,3 explains his intrigue with photography’s abilities and limitations in recording the subjective. He continued to develop the work with series III produced in 1990, followed in 1993-94 by series IV, comprising male and female faces.

1. Breninger W 1983, ‘Art & fulfilment’, self-published artist’s essay p 1
2. Warren Breninger in correspondence with Sue Smith, 24 Feb 1984, collection files, Warren Breninger, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane
3. Breninger W 1983, op cit p 3

© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007

 

Christine Barry. 'Packaged Deal' 1986/96

 

Christine Barry (Australia born 1954)
Packaged Deal
1986/96
From the series Displaced Objects
Direct positive colour photograph/Type C photographic print
50.0cm x 50.0 cm/127.0cm x 127.0 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Christine Barry. 'Untitled (Patricia Marczak)' 1986-87

 

Christine Barry (Australia born 1954)
Untitled (Patricia Marczak)
1986-87
From the series Displaced Objects
Direct positive colour photograph/Type C photographic print
image 51.1 h x 50.7 w cm; sheet 60.9 h x 50.7 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Christine Barry. 'Untitled (Self portrait)' 1986

 

Christine Barry (Australia born 1954)
Untitled (Self portrait)
1986
From the series Displaced Objects
Direct positive colour photograph/Type C photographic print
Image 50.8 h x 50.7 w cm sheet 60.8 h x 50.7 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Janina Green. 'Maid in Hong Kong #11' 2008

 

Janina Green (Essen, Germany born 1944; Australia from 1949)
Maid in Hong Kong #11
2008
From the series Maid in Hong Kong
Gelatin silver photograph, colour dyes gelatin silver photograph
Image and sheet 76.0 h x 60.0 w cm
Gift of Wilbow Group PTY LTD Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Robyn Stacey. 'Untitled' 1985-87

 

Robyn Stacey (born Brisbane 1952; lives and works Sydney)
Untitled
1985-87
Gelatin silver photograph, colour dye
Collection of the artist
Courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney

 

Robyn Stacey. 'Untitled' 1985-87

 

Robyn Stacey (born Brisbane 1952; lives and works Sydney)
Untitled
1985-87
Gelatin silver photograph, colour dye
Collection of the artist
Courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney

 

Robyn Stacey. 'Untitled' 1985-87

 

Robyn Stacey (born Brisbane 1952; lives and works Sydney)
Untitled
1985-87
Gelatin silver photograph, colour dye
Collection of the artist
Courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney

 

Robyn Stacey. 'Untitled' 1985-87

 

Robyn Stacey (born Brisbane 1952; lives and works Sydney)
Untitled
1985-87
Gelatin silver photograph, colour dye
Collection of the artist
Courtesy of the artist and Stills Gallery, Sydney

 

 

National Gallery of Australia
Parkes Place, Canberra
Australian Capital Territory 2600
Tel: (02) 6240 6411

Opening hours:
Open daily 10.00 am – 5.00 pm
(closed Christmas day)

National Gallery of Australia 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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