Posts Tagged ‘Gael Newton

12
Jul
16

Review: ‘Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain’ at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 31st May – 24th July 2016

National Gallery of Australia touring exhibition

Curator: Shaune Lakin

 

 

An independent vision

 

Pictorialism, Surrealism and Modernism: Light, geometry and atmosphere

This is the quintessential hung “on the line” exhibition from the National Gallery of Australia which features the work of two well respected Australian photographers, Max Dupain and Olive Cotton, showing over three gallery spaces at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne. Of its type, it is a superb exhibition which rewards repeated viewing and contemplation of the many superb photographs it contains.

While Dupain may be the more illustrious of the two featured artists – notable for taking the most famous photograph in Australian photographic history (Sunbaker, 1937, below); for being the first Australian photographer to embrace Modernism; and for bringing a distinctly Australian style to photography (sun, sea, sand) – it is the artist Olive Cotton’s work that steals almost every facet of this exhibition through her atmospheric images.

Dupain’s importance in the history of Australian photography cannot be underestimated. He dragged Australian photography from Pictorialism to Modernism in a few short years and met fierce resistance from the conservative camera clubs, stuck in the age of Pictorialism, because of it. He was the first to understand what Modernism meant for the medium in Australia, and how photographers would in future picture the country. He wanted to see the world through ‘modern’ eyes. As he observed, ‘(photography) belongs to the new age … it is part and parcel of the terrific and thrilling panorama opening out before us today – of clean concrete buildings, steel radio masts, and the wings of the air line. But its beauty is only for those who themselves are aware of the ‘zeitgeist’ – who belong consciously and proudly to this age, and have not their eyes forever wistfully fixed on the past.’ Dupain’s awareness of the ‘zeitgeist’ of modernity was coupled with a keen eye for composition, light and form (what Dupain later termed ‘passing movement and changing form’), and an understanding of photography’s expressive potential. Over the next 50 years he captured many memorable images, some of the most famous images ever taken of this sun burnt country.

Dupain started to hit his straps with his early cross-over images which contained elements of both Pictorialism and Modernism. His 1930s series of three photographs of Fire Stairs at Bond Street Studio (one of which is feature in the exhibition), and images such as Design – suburbia (1933, below) and Still life (1935, below) still possess that soft, raking light that was so beloved by Pictorialists, coupled with an implicit understanding of form, geometry and light. As fellow photographer David Moore observes, by the time of photographs such as Pyrmont silos (1935, below) and Through the Windscreen (1935), ‘any return to sentimental Pictorialism was precluded’. That sense of the European avant-garde, the aesthetics of contemporary European photography, the strength of industrial forms, imbues Dupain’s photographs with a crisp, clean decisiveness, that ‘symphony of forms and textures’. Whether it be the monumentalism of silos, or the monumentalism of bodies (such as in the classic Bondi, 1939), Dupain relished the opportunity to merge aesthetics with representation, pushing the boundaries of what was thought possible within the medium, believing that both representation and aesthetics could exist within the same frame. Evidence of this merging of can be seen in photographs such as Untitled [Factory chimney stacks] (1940, below) and Backyard, Forster, New South Wales (1940, below). These images are silent in their formalism… they are very quiet, and still, and rather haunting, beautiful in their tonality (with lots of yellow in the 8 x 10 and perhaps even small prints).

Dupain and Cotton both revel “in photography’s great capacity to make sense of the relations of light, texture and form as they exist in the present,” and evidence “a modernist concern with line, form and space; documentary photography’s interest in realism and ‘the living moment’; and the pictorial and formal attributes of commercial photography.” But as the press release insightfully observes, “Comparisons articulate and make apparent Dupain’s more structured – even abstracted – approach to art and to the world; similarly, comparisons highlight Cotton’s more immersive relationship to place, with a particularly deep and instinctual love of light and its ephemeral effects.” And this is where the photographs of Olive Cotton are so much more engaging, and alive, than those of Max Dupain.

While Dupain was busy running a commercial studio (with Cotton his assistant and for a couple of years his wife), Olive seems to have had more freedom to experiment, to express herself in a less structured way than her erstwhile husband. Walking around this exhibition my initial thoughts were wow, Olive Cotton, you are an absolute star. Photographs such as The way through the trees (1938, below), while not possessing the technical brilliance of a Dupain, possess something inherently more appealing – a sensitivity and feeling for subject that nearly overwhelms the senses. Truly here is a symphony of texture, light and form. The composition is a subtle paean, a song of praise to the natural and modern world – a world of geometry, textures, light and form. The rendition of this image, a performance of interpretation, is simply magnificent in its sensitivity to subject matter. The print is also glorious in its delicacy and colour. For me, this is what is so appealing about the work of Olive Cotton, an innate sensitivity that all of her photographs seem to possess – in composition, in proportion, in printing and in colour. Cotton maintained an independent vision forged out of experimentation, creating spaces for erotic imaginings, spaces for action and spaces for quiet contemplation. Her use of light and shade, of body and shadow, of classical and modernist motifs …. is superlative. While Dupain’s photographs are more structured and more dazzling in a technical sense, Cotton’s photographs possess more “atmosphere”, a complex and insightful way of seeing and imaging the world which has few equals in the annals of Australian photography.

Below is a short transcription of a voice memo I made on my phone as I toured around the exhibition for the third time:

“What a great show this is, the photographs of Max Dupain and Olive Cotton. But it is the photographs of Olive Cotton that are the wonder of this exhibition. Photographs such as Orchestration in light (1937, below), Sky submerged (c. 1937) and especially The way through the trees (1938, below) are just masterpieces of complex seeing. A sort of… mmmm … an intimate previsualisation where there are hints of Pictorialism – dappled light, moss on the trees – and yet there is a geometric form to the composition that marks it as definitively Modernist. As the wall text states, “this exceptional landscape appears at first glance like a classic Pictorialist view of the Australian bush but typical of Cotton’s best pictures, this landscape merges Pictorialism’s stylistic and formal codes  with those of a cosmopolitan modernist sensibility. Cotton pays particular attention to the similarly angled tree trunks, as well as the all over pattern of the spotted gums and the dapples of light, not bound or hemmed in dogma, Cotton created a view of being completely immersed in the landscape.” The colour of the print, there are hints of pinks and greens and beiges. When was it taken and printed, it must have been an early one, 1938 … and then again the beautiful tonality of it. Wow!

As with all of her best work Cotton is constructing her environment – through music, through geometry, through light. Over the city (1940, below), the light over the city, the shadow of the city, the silhouette of the city in outline, followed by Grass at sundown (1939, below) shooting contre jour, into the light. In Max after surfing (1937, below) there is evidence of Cotton’s understanding of the play of form, of light, of shadow and the composition of the pictorial plane into triangles, horizontals and verticals. This creates a sense of mystery within the four walls of the photograph. As art historian Tim Bonyhady observes, it ‘is not just one of the most erotic Australian photographs, but possibly the first sexually charged Australian photograph by a woman of a man’. The sensuality and atmosphere of the Cotton’s are just gorgeous. Olive Cotton just has such a marvellous grasp of the construction of the picture plane using form, texture and shadow… and feeling. If had a choice I would take away most of the Cotton’s (laughs), because I think they are just amazing…”

There are so many great images in this exhibition, from both Cotton and Dupain, that is hard to know where to start. I haven’t even mentioned images such as Dupain’s sensual but commercial Jean with wire mesh (c. 1935, below), his seminal Street at Central (1939, below) with its raking light and abstraction, or Cotton’s most famous image Teacup ballet (1935, below). I could go on and on. The only disappointment with the exhibition is that, for the uninitiated, there is little to place both photographers works in the context of their time and place, other than a few The Home magazines in a couple of display cases and the wall text. There is little sense of what a tumultuous period this was in Australian history – between two world wars, during a depression, with the advent of modernity, freedom of movement through cars, White Australia policy in full swing, meat and four veg on the table, women’s place in the home, the rise of vitalism and the cult of the bronzed Aussie body and the worship of nature and the outdoors, mateship and the beach as a place of socialisation. But that is the nature of such a classic, hung “on the line” exhibition. It would have been great to see some large photographs, floor to ceiling, of the environment from which all these nearly contextless (as in a particular time and place) images emerged but this is a minor quibble. In the end, I restate that this is a stunning exhibition that is a must see for any aficionado of great Australian photography. Go see it before it closes.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

Word count: 1,685

.
Many thankx to The Ian Potter Museum of Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

“I like few people … to go into a room of strangers is a chore for me … I can effect a relationship, but afterwards, I think: was it worth it?”

.
Max Dupain

 

“Looking at the work of these two great Australian photographers together is enlightening; they were often shooting the same subjects, or pursuing subjects and pictorial effects in similar ways. Rarely do we get to see two great Australian artists working side-by-side in this way. And while Max Dupain’s reputation might now stand well above most other Australian photographers, this exhibition shows that Olive Cotton had a significant role to play in his development as a photographer, and was in many ways his equal.”

.
Shaune Lakin

 

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

Gallery one

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

installation-g

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

 

At left, Max Dupain’s Bawley Point landscape (1938) and middle, Dupain’s Untitled [Factory chimney stacks], 1940

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

 

Max Dupain’s famous Sunbaker (1937) is second from the right

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

 

Olive Cotton’s most famous image, Teacup ballet (1935) at left

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

 

Max Dupain’s Jean with wire mesh (c. 1935) at right

Gallery two

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

 

Cabinet with view of The Home magazine (April 1st 1933 right) which feature the photographs of Max Dupain

Gallery three

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

 

Max Dupain’s Street at Central (1939) left, followed by his Thin man (1936) and Olive Cotton’s Fashion shot, Cronulla sandhills (Max Dupain photographing model) (1937) at right

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

Installation view of the exhibition 'Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain' at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne

 

Installation photographs of the exhibition Max and Olive: The photographic life of Olive Cotton and Max Dupain at The Ian Potter Museum of Art, Melbourne
All images © Marcus Bunyan, The National Gallery of Australia and The Ian Potter Museum of Art

 

 

Olive Cotton (1911-2003) and Max Dupain OBE (1911-1992) were pioneering modernist photographers. Cotton’s lifelong obsession with photography began at age eleven with the gift of a Kodak Box Brownie. She was a childhood friend of Dupain’s and in 1934 she joined his fledgling photographic studio, where she made her best-known work, Teacup Ballet, in about 1935. Throughout the 1930s, Dupain established his reputation with portraiture and advertising work and gained exposure in the lifestyle magazine The Home. Between 1939 and 1941, Dupain and Cotton were married and she photographed him often; her Max After Surfing is frequently cited as one of the most sensuous Australian portrait photographs. While Dupain was on service during World War II Cotton ran his studio, one of very few professional women photographers in Australia. Cotton remarried in 1944 and moved to her husband’s property near Cowra, New South Wales. Although busy with a farm, a family, and a teaching position at the local high school, Cotton continued to take photographs and opened a studio in Cowra in 1964. In the 1950s, Dupain turned increasingly to architectural photography, collaborating with architects and recording projects such as the construction of the Sydney Opera House. Dupain continued to operate his studio on Sydney’s Lower North Shore until he died at the age of 81. Cotton was in her seventies when her work again became the subject of attention. In 1983, she was awarded a Visual Arts Board grant to reprint negatives that she had taken over a period of forty years or more. The resulting retrospective exhibition in Sydney in 1985 drew critical acclaim and has since assured her reputation.

Text from the National Portrait Gallery website

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 - 2003) 'Only to taste the warmth, the light, the wind' c. 1939

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 – 2003)
Only to taste the warmth, the light, the wind
c. 1939
Gelatin silver photograph

PHOTOGRAPH NOT IN EXHIBITION

 

 

Only to taste the warmth, the light, the wind appears to have been the only print Cotton made of this image. It was found in the late 1990s and has been shown only once, in an exhibition at the AGNSW in 2000 where it was also used on the catalogue cover. It was unusual for Cotton to print so large, yet it is entirely fitting that this monumental head and shoulder shot of a beautiful young woman should be presented in this way. The subject was a model on a fashion shoot at which Cotton was probably assisting. Cotton often took her own photographs while on such shoots and used them for her private portfolio. The photograph transcends portraiture, fashion and time to become a remarkable image of harmony with the elements.

Cotton took the title for this photograph from an 1895 poem by English poet Laurence Binyon, ‘O summer sun’:

O summer sun, O moving trees!
O cheerful human noise, O busy glittering street!
What hour shall Fate in all the future find,
Or what delights, ever to equal these:
Only to taste the warmth, the light, the wind,
Only to be alive, and feel that life is sweet?1

A photographer whose work straddles pictorialism, modernism and documentary, Cotton maintained an independent vision throughout her working life, based on the close observation of nature. Her understanding of the medium of photography was not to do with capture, but rather ‘drawing with light’.

1. 1915, ‘Poems of today’, English Association, London p 96

Text from the Art Gallery of New South Wales website © Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 - 2003) 'Max' c. 1935

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 – 2003)
Max
c. 1935
gelatin silver photograph
14.8 x 14.5 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1998

 

 

In this highly abstracted portrait, Cotton seems to present Dupain as an athlete – perhaps, with his strangely extended arms, a hammer thrower, in an image that predates by at least two years Dupain’s own photographs of athletes outdoors. It is likely that Cotton photographed her friend in this way because of the graphic pictorial effect she wished to achieve. Cotton exploits the shape of the Rolleiflex camera’s square-format film: Dupain’s body cuts across the right-hand corner of the picture, from which his overstretched forearms (the shape and tone of which were the result of much dodging and burning in the darkroom) create a diagonal oblique angle that is classically modernist. A similar conflation of diagonal lines, which was common to the ways that modern life in Australia at the time was represented in advertising and architectural photography, can also be seen in pictures such as Surf’s edge and Teacup ballet.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

“Max Dupain put his lack of clannishness down to a temperament which inclined to the stoic and an early life as an only child. He relished the solitude of his darkroom, familiar places and routines and the early morning calm of Sydney Harbour, where he rowed his scull until prevented by ill health in the early 1990s. He was not a joiner or follower of teams; he was republican in politics and agnostic. Philosophically, Dupain mixed rationalism and a less defined alliance with the passionate exhortation to live directly in one’s environment, body and heart. This philosophy was espoused by poets and writers such as D.H Lawrence, from the movement known in the 1920s and 1930s as Vitalism.

Although he acknowledged that he was a bit of a loner by temperament, portraiture was a significant part of Max Dupain’s personal and professional work. He included some dozen or so portraits in his selection for his 1948 monograph, fifty plates showing ‘my best work since 1935’. Dupain’s images, including many portraits especially of the 1930s to 1960s, have stamped the public image of this era of rapid progress and increasing cultural sophistication in Australia. Portraiture was at the top stratum of Dupain’s first three decades of work but volume decreased markedly from the 1960s, when Max Dupain and Associates, his business, began to specialise in architectural and industrial commissions.”

‘Vintage Max’ by Gael Newton, 1 June 2003

 

Max Dupain. 'Sunbaker' 1937

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 – 1992)
Sunbaker
1937
Gelatin silver photograph
37.7 x 43.2 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Gift of the Philip Morris Arts Grant 1982

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 - 2003) 'The photographer's shadow (Olive Cotton and Max Dupain)' c. 1935

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 – 2003)
The photographer’s shadow (Olive Cotton and Max Dupain)
c. 1935
Gelatin silver photograph
16.6 x 15.2 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 - 2003) 'The sleeper' 1939

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 – 2003)
The sleeper
1939
Gelatin silver photograph
29.2 h x 25.0 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1987

 

The sleeper 1939, Olive Cotton’s graceful study of her friend Olga Sharp resting while on a bush picnic, made around the same time as Max Dupain’s Sunbaker, presents a different take upon the enjoyment of life in Australia. The woman is relaxed, nestled within the environment. The mood is one of secluded reverie.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 - 1992) 'Untitled [Olive Cotton in Wheat Fields]' Nd (probably late 1930s)

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 – 1992)
Untitled [Olive Cotton in Wheat Fields]
Nd (probably late 1930s)
Gelatin silver photograph

PHOTOGRAPH NOT IN EXHIBITION

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 - 2003) 'Max' 1939

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 – 2003)
Max
1939
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

 

Cotton shot this portrait of fellow Australian photographer, Max Dupain during their brief marriage at their home in Longueville on Sydney’s lower north shore. Dupain is captured affectionately in the portrait, represented as at once casual through pose and, as industrious on account of his rolled up sleeves and the Rolleiflex TLR camera which hangs from his neck. It is indicative of the combination of a working and personal relationship Cotton and Dupain shared during the late 1930s when they operated a commercial studio together. The couple separated in 1941 but Cotton went on to manage the Dupain Studio while Max was away serving as a camouflage officer during the Second World War 1.

1. Ennis H 2005, ‘Olive Cotton: photographer’, National Library of Australia, p. 6

Text from the Art Gallery of New South Wales website © Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 - 2003) 'Max after surfing' 1937

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 – 2003)
Max after surfing
1937
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 2006

 

 

This intimate study of Dupain, who Cotton was romantically involved with at the time, first appeared in the mid-1990s; Cotton did not include it in her reassessment of her oeuvre in the mid-1980s that involved making prints of her best images. For many commentators, this remains a radical image in the history of Australian photography. For the art historian Tim Bonyhady, it ‘is not just one of the most erotic Australian photographs, but possibly the first sexually charged Australian photograph by a woman of a man’. This is the only known vintage print of the image, which inexplicably carries the signature and a message from the fashion photographer George Hoyningen‑Huene, who visited Sydney in December 1937 and spent time with Dupain. It suggests perhaps that Hoyningen-Huene was present when Cotton made the print.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Max after surfing is a portrait of Dupain taken in 1939, around the time of their brief marriage. While the photograph was taken indoors, the sharply delineated contrast and the dramatic interplay between light and shade evoke harsh sunlight. The work is loaded with suggestion and emotional intimacy. As art historian and curator Helen Ennis noted in 2000, the close vantage point and the tension between visible form and dense shadow ‘creates a space for erotic imaginings’.

A photographer whose work straddles pictorialism, modernism and documentary, Cotton maintained an independent vision throughout her working life, based on the close observation of nature. Her understanding of the medium of photography was not to do with capture, but rather ‘drawing with light’.

Text from the Art Gallery of New South Wales website © Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 - 1992) 'Jean with wire mesh' c. 1935

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 – 1992)
Jean with wire mesh
c. 1935
Gelatin silver photograph
46.0 h x 34.5 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 2006

 

 

This portrait of Jean Lorraine, a close friend of Cotton, was one of many taken of her by Cotton and Dupain. This photograph is notable for its technical virtuosity – Dupain’s control of the variegated light across Jean’s body, beautifully lyrical and sensuous, is masterful. It also reflects Dupain’s active interest in the work of Man Ray, whose earlier Shadow patterns on Lee Miller’s torso (1930) was no doubt an influence. Like Man Ray’s image of his lover, Dupain’s portrait of Jean is also notable for its eroticism. While Dupain might have argued that this photograph was a study of light falling on surfaces, the light and shade take particular pleasure in the form of Jean’s naked torso. This eroticism has been underplayed throughout the history of the picture, not surprising given the nature of the relationships involved: when it was published in The Home in February 1936, Jean with wire mesh was known simply as a Photographic study. Dupain printed at least two versions of this shot, another with Jean’s eyes open.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 - 2003) 'Girl with mirror' 1938

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 – 2003)
Girl with mirror
1938
Gelatin silver photograph
Image 31.7 h x 29.9 w cm sheet 32.6 h x 30.6 w cm
Purchased 1987

 

 

The photographs Cotton took while attending Dupain’s fashion shoots often focussed on the graphic effects created by light rather than fashion or the dynamics of the shoot itself. Cotton’s role as assistant left her free to explore personal interests, without the imperative of getting a shot for the assignment. This image of a model attending to her make-up, seemingly absorbed in her own image, is primarily concerned with the patterns created by light falling on sand dunes and the way they contrast with the decorative print of her clothing. It is notable that the image we see in the mirror is not the model’s face, but the patterns created by light hitting the sand. As Cotton later remembered, ‘I took it mostly because I really liked the pattern in the sand and the contrasting pattern in the left-hand corner’, which includes a series of diagonal shadows cast by Dupain’s tripod.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 - 1992) 'The floater' 1939

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 – 1992)
The floater
1939
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia
Purchased 1976

 

 

Two versions of this image of a woman floating in water were printed by Dupain, so like Sunbaker it held particular interest for him. It acknowledges one of the great moments in avant-garde photography, André Kertész’s iconic study of underwater distortion Underwater swimmer (1917). As with Kertész, Dupain’s interest was with the visual effects created by light hitting the water and the impact of this on the contours of the swimmer. In his personal copy of the anthology Modern Photography (1931), Dupain highlighted the writer G.H. Saxon Mills’ claim that photography’s value existed in both its capacity to record the world and the optical effects it found or created – ‘its … symphony of forms and textures.’ (Wall text)

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 - 2003) 'Fashion shot, Cronulla sandhills (Max Dupain photographing model)' 1937

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 – 2003)
Fashion shot, Cronulla sandhills (Max Dupain photographing model)
1937
Cronulla, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Gelatin silver photograph
Image 30.4 h x 38.5 w cm sheet 40.2 h x 48.7 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1988

 

As the studio assistant, Cotton accompanied Dupain on fashion shoots to attend to models, doing their make-up and helping with costume changes. She often used these opportunities to take her own photographs, including this wonderful image of Dupain photographing the model Noreen Hallard for David Jones. As well as producing a striking image of Dupain and Hallard at work, Cotton was interested in the landscape in which they operated, paying particular attention to the pattern created by their footsteps in the sand.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

 

“Olive Cotton and Max Dupain are key figures in Australian visual culture. They shared a long and close personal and professional relationship. This exhibition looks at their work made between 1934 and 1945, the period of their professional association; this was an exciting period of experimentation and growth in Australian photography, and Cotton and Dupain were at the centre of these developments.

This is the first exhibition to look at the work of these two photographers as they shared their lives, studio and professional practice. Looking at their work together is instructive; they were often shooting the same subjects, or pursuing subjects and pictorial effects in similar ways. Comparisons articulate and make apparent Dupain’s more structured – even abstracted – approach to art and to the world; similarly, comparisons highlight Cotton’s more immersive relationship to place, with a particularly deep and instinctual love of light and its ephemeral effects.

This exhibition focuses on the key period in each of their careers, when they made many of their most memorable images. Keenly aware of international developments in photography, Cotton and Dupain experimented with the forms and strategies of modernist photography, especially Surrealism and the Bauhaus, and drew upon the sophisticated lighting and compositions of contemporary advertising and Hollywood glamour photography.

They brought to these influences their own, close association with the rich context of Australian life and culture during the 1930s and ’40s. Their achievement can be characterised, borrowing terms they used in discussions of their work, as the development of a ‘contemporary Australian photography’: a modern photographic practice that reflected their own, very particular relationships to the world and to each other.

Lives

Cotton and Dupain’s friendship stretched back to childhood summers spent at Newport Beach, NSW, where their families spent summer holidays. They were both given their first cameras – Kodak Box Brownies – by relatives as young teenagers, and spent days together wandering around taking photographs. They shared a similar commitment to photography as teenagers and young adults: both made and published or exhibited photographs while at school, and in 1929 they became members of the Photographic Society of New South Wales. But their approach to achieving the ‘professional life’ of a photographer took different paths: Dupain undertook a formal apprenticeship with the pictorialist master Cecil Bostock between 1930-33, while Cotton studied arts at Sydney University with the idea of becoming a teacher and photographed after hours.

Cotton and Dupain became romantically involved in 1928 and married in 1939; they separated in 1941 and eventually divorced in 1944. In spite of these personal vicissitudes, Cotton and Dupain remained professionally connected. Cotton managed the Dupain studio from late 1941-45, while he worked with the Department of Home Security’s Camouflage Unit during the Second World War. On his return, Cotton left Sydney and spent the rest of her life in relative isolation near Cowra, NSW, where she raised her family of two with husband Ross McInerney and, between 1964 and 1983, operated a small studio. And while Dupain returned from the war to develop his reputation and significance as Australia’s most recognised twentieth-century photographer, his work was deeply affected by his experience of the war and took on a completely different complexion to his work from the previous decade.

Studio

In 1934, Dupain opened a studio in a rented room at 24 Bond Street, Sydney; Cotton joined him as his assistant soon after. By 1936, the Dupain studio’s business had expanded to the extent that it moved into larger premises in the same building, before relocating in early 1941 to a whole floor of a building at 49 Clarence Street.

Their positions at the Dupain studio were clearly defined – he was the photographer, she the studio assistant. Even so, Cotton and Dupain each maintained distinct but in some ways closely aligned practices, both in and out of the studio. Cotton did not tend to take photographs commercially until after she took over the management of the Dupain studio in late 1941, when photographs were circulated in her name. Before then, she made use of the studio’s equipment afterhours, including Dupain’s large Thornton Pickard camera; her work was exhibited and published on occasion, both locally and internationally.

At the same time, Dupain’s photographs became increasingly widely-seen and influential. Sydney Ure Smith’s iconic monthly magazine The Home regularly published Dupain’s portraits, documentary work, social photographs (often actually taken by Cotton), and fashion and product photographs made for clients such as David Jones. When Dupain went to war, the studio continued to operate successfully under Cotton’s management. While some long-standing clients such as David Jones took their business elsewhere, Cotton took some of her most important pictures in the early 1940s, and her increasing confidence at this time can be identified across images of the city, industry and labour.

Dialogue

Cotton and Dupain were active members of Sydney’s network of young artists and photographers, of which the Dupain studio was a centre. Along with their contemporaries, including figures like Geoffrey Powell, Damien Parer and Lawrence Le Guay, they staked a claim for photography as a vital part of contemporary culture, exhibiting photographs alongside other artworks at venues like Sydney’s David Jones Gallery.

Their networks included members of Sydney’s progressive architectural, design, publishing and advertising communities, with whom they often collaborated. The threads of influence within this complex network of making, exhibiting, publishing and commissions were intricate. It is possible, for example, to see Dupain’s strong visual style affect those around him. His interest in surrealist style, which really took hold in 1935, can be identified in work by other, often lesser photographers working at the time, and indeed in the design of The Home, which published his work in editorial and advertisements. There were also times when Cotton indicated certain directions for Dupain. For example, her images of bodies outdoors, which cleverly pulled together classical and modernist motifs, predate similar images by Dupain.

It is clear also that Cotton and Dupain were engaging in dialogue within their own work. Their shared interest in photographing form, texture and shadow is seen across many pictures throughout the mid- to late 1930s. Their pictures also engage critically with photography as a medium, in images that draw attention to the photograph as a double of its subject, and in pictures that seem to play with photograph’s stillness. As Dupain later remembered, together they ‘shared the problems of photography’.

Contemporary Australian Photography

What were ‘the problems of photography’ that Dupain and Cotton sought to settle? In the most straightforward sense, they involved the assumption that Australian photographers were yet to completely embrace or realise the medium’s potential, which rested in careful attention to its aesthetic possibilities, recognition of its mechanical origins, and negotiation of the particular way the medium engaged notions of objectivity and subjectivity. Their solution to these problems involved a progressive photographic practice that intended to release photography from the shackles of history and orthodoxy, and to revel in photography’s great capacity to make sense of the relations of light, texture and form as they exist in the present.

Cotton’s and Dupain’s solution to ‘the problems of photography’ was to make work that made a feature of the medium’s modernity, and the strange way that mechanics, physics and aesthetics come together in modern photography to look at the world and to find beauty in it. They did this in a way that remained firmly footed in their own, very particular place in the world and history. In terms of style, their solution integrated legacies of Pictorialism – especially its interest in the atmospheric effects found in landscape – with a range of other, often competing modes and styles: a modernist concern with line, form and space; documentary photography’s interest in realism and ‘the living moment’; and the pictorial and formal attributes of commercial photography.

It is possible that, for the first time, Australian photography found in the work of Cotton and Dupain a contemporary expression: a photographic practice that emerged from, responded to and expressed the mood, ambitions and sensibility of its time.”

Press release from The Ian Potter Museum of Art

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 - 1992) 'Street at Central' 1939

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 – 1992)
Street at Central
1939
Gelatin silver photograph
45.6 x 37.5 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1976

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 - 1992) 'Street at Central' 1939

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 – 1992)
Street at Central
1939
Gelatin silver photograph
45.6 x 37.5 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1976

 

Two different versions of this photograph. Notice the different cropping and colour of each image, and how it adds emphasis to the light and to the shadows of the people.

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 - 2003) 'Teacup ballet' 1935

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 – 2003)
Teacup ballet
1935
Gelatin silver photograph
37.5 x 29.5 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1983

 

‘This picture evolved after I had bought some inexpensive cups and saucers from Woolworths for our studio coffee breaks to replace our rather worn old mugs. The angular handles reminded me of arms akimbo, and that led to the idea of making a photograph to express a dance theme.

When the day’s work was over I tried several arrangements of the cups and saucers to convey this idea, without success, until I used a spotlight and realised how important the shadows were. Using the studio camera, which had a 6 ½ x 4 ½ inch ground glass focusing screen, I moved the cups about until they and their shadows made a ballet-like composition and then photographed them on a cut film negative. The title of the photograph suggested itself.

This was my first photograph to be shown overseas, being exhibited, to my delight, in the London Salon of Photography in 1935.’ Olive Cotton 1995 1

Olive Cotton and Max Dupain were childhood friends and, although she graduated in English and mathematics from the University of Sydney in 1934, her interest in photography led her to work in Dupain’s studio from this year. Cotton was employed as a photographer’s assistant in the studio, however she worked assiduously on her own work and continued to exhibit in photography salon exhibitions. Tea cup ballet is one of Cotton’s most well-known photographs and yet it is somewhat eccentric to her main practice, being at first glance typically modernist with its dramatic lighting and angular shapes. Her longstanding interest in organic forms provides a deeper reading. The abstraction of form by the lighting and the placement of the cups and saucers enables the relationship to dancers on a stage to become clear.

1. Ennis H 1995, ‘Olive Cotton: photographer’, National Library of Australia, Canberra p. 25

Text from the Art Gallery of New South Wales website © Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007

 

Among Cotton’s most famous photographs, Teacup ballet has very humble origins. It was taken after hours in the Dupain studio and used a set of cheap cups and saucers Cotton had earlier bought from a Woolworths store for use around the studio. As she later recounted: ‘Their angular handles suggested to me the position of “arms akimbo” and that led to the idea of a dance pattern’. The picture uses a range of formal devices that became common to Cotton’s work, especially the strong backlighting used to create dramatic tonal contrasts and shadows. The picture achieved instant success, and was selected for exhibition in the London Salon of Photography for 1935.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 - 2003) 'Shasta daisies' 1937

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 – 2003)
Shasta daisies
1937
Gelatin silver photograph
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1987

 

 

Celebrated Australian photographer Olive Cotton was given her first Box Brownie by her family for her eleventh birthday (1922) and continued to experiment with taking and developing pictures throughout the 1920s. By the early 1930s Cotton had mastered the Pictorialist style so popular at the time and was on her way to establishing her own approach which also incorporated Modernist principles. The recurrent themes of landscape and plant-life are important to the photographer’s approach, which photography scholar Helen Ennis describes as Cotton’s concern for the ‘potential for pattern-making’.

Shasta daisies is an interesting and rare combination of natural form and a highly-constructed scenario, the flowers having been photographed in Cotton’s studio and carefully arranged for the camera. Cotton, in the 1995 book, wrote of the photograph: “I chose to photograph these in the studio because out of doors I would have had less control of the lighting and background. I examined the composition very carefully through the studio camera’s large ground glass focussing screen and – the view from the camera’s position being slightly different to my own – made as many rearrangements to the flowers as seemed necessary. I then used (apart from a background light) one source of light to try and convey a feeling of outdoors.” Shasta daisies is important within Cotton’s oeuvre for uniting her interest in plants in their natural ‘outdoors’ environment with her enquiry into photographic form and space.

Text from the Art Gallery of New South Wales website

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 - 1992) 'Homage to D.H. Lawrence' 1937

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 – 1992)
Homage to D.H. Lawrence
1937
Gelatin silver photograph
45.8 x 33.9 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1982

 

 

Dupain admired vitalist philosophies, which argued that modern identity had become fragmented and asserted the importance of the integration of body and emotion, of sensual and emotional experience. He was attracted to the work of British writer D.H. Lawrence, especially his insistence on the ‘thingness’ of things as a way of embodying a properly integrated mind and body. This photograph uses surrealist juxtaposition to draw together a copy of Lawrence’s Selected poems, a flywheel (representing the modern world) and a classical bust, recalling the idealised relationship of natural and sensual worlds in ancient Greece and Rome. Other images incorporating classical busts appeared in the pages of the Modern Photography annuals, but Dupain makes them his own, lifted above mere pastiche.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 - 2003) 'Orchestration in light' 1937

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 – 2003)
Orchestration in light
1937
Gelatin silver photograph
Image 24.1 h x 27.4 w cm sheet 25.4 h x 28.2 w cm
Purchased with assistance from the Helen Ennis Fund
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

 

Cotton took this landscape early one morning at Wullumbi Gorge in the New England tablelands, during a camping trip with Dupain. It is remarkable for both the way the light transforms the landscape into quivering energy and the way Cotton makes sense of that enigmatic experience in pictorial form. As its title suggests, the photograph recalled for Cotton – who trained as a musician as a girl – a musical composition, particularly ‘the beautiful graduation in tone going from a bass tone to a high treble at the top of the picture’.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 - 2003) 'The patterned road' 1938

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 – 2003)
The patterned road
1938
Gelatin silver photograph
24.6 h x 28.8 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1983

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 - 1992) 'Bawley Point landscape' 1938

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 – 1992)
Bawley Point landscape
1938
Gelatin silver photograph
29 x 26.6 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1982

 

 

This landscape, one of many taken by Dupain on the south coast of New South Wales, was made in the same year as Cotton’s similar study of shadow and landscape, The patterned road (above). These two landscapes share an interest in what Dupain later termed ‘passing movement and changing form’. Although Dupain rarely published or circulated his landscapes at this time, pictures such as Bawley Point landscape certainly relate to a broad range of other images, perhaps most notably still lifes and nudes, that articulated an Australian modernist photography through the interplay of light passing through openings. These images find monumental stillness in movement and strong shadows, which quite literally ‘double’ their subject.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 - 2003) 'Over the city' 1940

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 – 2003)
Over the city
1940
Gelatin silver photograph
32.2 h x 30.3 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1987

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 - 1992) 'Grass at sundown' 1939

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 – 2003)
Grass at sundown
1939
Gelatin silver photograph
Primary Insc: Signed and dated l.l. pencil, “Olive Cotton ’39”. Titled l.r. pencil, “Grass at sundown”.
Printed image 28.9 h x 30.8 w cm sheet 30.0 h x 31.6 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Gift of the artist 1987

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911 - 1992) 'Design - suburbia' 1933

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911 – 1992)
Design – suburbia
1933
Gelatin silver photograph
29.4 h x 23.6 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1982

 

 

This early image proudly displays the influence of the work of pictorialist photographers that Dupain knew well, most notably the Sydney-based photographer, Harold Cazneaux. At the time Dupain made this image, he was serving an apprenticeship in the commercial studio of Cecil Bostock, a Pictorialist and founding member with Cazneaux of the Sydney Camera Circle in 1916. Dupain’s interest in the pictorial effects created by light passing through apertures (here, the posts and beams of a suburban fence) seems to remember similar images of light streaming through blinds and pergolas by Cazneaux, who Dupain called ‘the father of modern Australian photography’. The fascination with capturing light as it passes through openings will stay with Dupain throughout his life, though the focus will sharpen as he moves away from the diffused effects favoured by art photographers in the early decades of the century.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911 - 1992) 'Still life' 1935

 

Max Dupain (Australia 1911 – 1992)
Still life
1935
Gelatin silver photograph
29.0 h x 20.8 w cm
Purchased 1982

 

 

While the subject of this photograph seems to be a simple, lidded pail (which featured in a number of Dupain’s still lifes) seen in morning light, it is actually an exercise in abstraction. Of most interest to Dupain is the complex network of diagonal lines created by light, shadow and timber boards. The picture reflects the pleasure Dupain took in the pictorial effects created by light (he was fond of quoting the Belgian photographer Léonard Misonne’s dictum, ‘the subject is nothing, light is everything’), and at the same time expresses the fundamental principle upon which his photographic practice was always based. While the image of light passing through apertures is an analogy for the way the camera operates, the still life also embodies photography’s expressive potential. As Dupain later stated, ‘with still-life you can arrange or rearrange or do what you like, it becomes a very, very personal exercise that you have total control over’.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Max Dupain. 'Pyrmont silos' 1933, printed later

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 – 1992)
Pyrmont silos
1935
Gelatin silver photograph
Printed image 25.2 h x 19.2 w cm sheet 31.2 h x 26.2 w cm mount 42.4 h x 32.0 w
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1976

 

 

Max Dupain was the first Australian photographer to embrace Modernism, and took a number of photographs of Pyrmont silos in the 1930s. There were no skyscrapers in Sydney until the late 1930s so the silos, Walter Burley Griffin’s incinerators and the Sydney Harbour Bridge were the major points of reference for those interested in depicting modern expressions of engineering and industrial power. Olive Cotton’s Drainpipes 1937 shows the precisely formed circles and curves of the pipes, interspersed with slivers of light and long shadows.

In almost text-book fashion, this image reflects Dupain’s assimilation of the aesthetics of contemporary European photography, which he encountered in publications such as the Das Deutsche Lichtbild [The German photograph] and Modern Photography annuals, the 1932 edition of which was edited by Man Ray. While Dupain’s relationship to the contemporary world was complicated, he nonetheless advocated for the latest photographic trends out of Europe and America, and for photographing modern, industrial subjects; as he asserted in 1938, ‘great art has always been contemporary in spirit’. Writing in 1975 about this image for Dupain’s retrospective at the Australian Centre for Photography, fellow photographer David Moore, who had worked with Dupain in the late 1940s, saw it as a turning point in Dupain’s career, believing that here ‘his awareness of the strength of industrial forms was confirmed with confident authority … From this moment any return to sentimental Pictorialism was precluded’.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Pyrmont silos is one of a number of photographs that Dupain took of these constructions in the 1930s. In all cases Dupain examined the silos from a modernist perspective, emphasising their monumentality from low viewpoints under a bright cloudless sky. Additionally, his use of strong shadows to emphasise the forms of the silos and the lack of human figures celebrates the built structure as well as providing no sense of scale. Another photograph by Dupain in the AGNSW collection was taken through a car windscreen so that the machinery of transport merges explicitly with industrialisation into a complex hard-edge image of views and mirror reflections. There were no skyscrapers in Sydney until the late 1930s so the silos, Walter Burley Griffin’s incinerators and the Sydney Harbour Bridge were the major points of reference for those interested in depicting modern expressions of engineering and industrial power.

Dupain was the first Australian photographer to embrace modernism. One of his photographs of the silos was roundly criticised when shown to the New South Wales Photographic Society but Dupain forged on regardless with his reading, thinking and experimentation. Some Australian painting and writing had embraced modernist principles in the 1920s, but as late as 1938 Dupain was writing to the Sydney Morning Herald:

“Great art has always been contemporary in spirit. Today we feel the surge of aesthetic exploration along abstract lines, the social economic order impinging itself on art, the repudiation of the ‘truth to nature criterion’ … We sadly need the creative courage of Man Ray, the original thought of Moholy-Nagy, and the dynamic realism of Edouard [sic] Steichen.”1

1. Dupain, M 1938, “Letter to the editor,” in Sydney Morning Herald, 30 March

Text from the Art Gallery of New South Wales website © Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 - 1992) 'Backyard, Forster, New South Wales' 1940

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 – 1992)
Backyard, Forster, New South Wales
1940
Gelatin silver photograph
30.5 h x 30.5 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1983

 

 

This highly formal view of the backyard of a hotel in the coastal town of Forster embodies Dupain’s sense of Australian modernist photography. The picture’s frontalism and overriding use of horizontals and verticals acknowledge that the camera faced its subject face-to-face and that the view has been consciously framed. But as the title of the photograph makes clear, it is also a record of a particular place. In his personal copy of G.H. Saxon Mills’ essay ‘Modern photography’, which greatly assisted Dupain to conceptualise his own sense of a contemporary photographic practice, Dupain highlighted and annotated with a question mark the following statement: ‘”modern” photography means photography whose aim is partly or wholly aesthetic, as opposed to photography which is merely documentary or representational.’ Dupain believed that both were possible within the same frame.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 - 1992) '(Factory chimney stacks)' 1940

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 – 1992)
[Factory chimney stacks]
1940
Gelatin silver photograph
49.0 h x 38.4 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1983

 

 

Dupain highlighted the writer G.H. Saxon Mills’ claim that photography’s value existed in both its capacity to record the world and the optical effects it found or created – ‘its … symphony of forms and textures.’

These factory chimney stacks are reduced to their most simple and direct form, which is shown free of any distraction. As Dupain noted, borrowing from the great American architectural historian Lewis Mumford, the ‘mission of the photograph is to clarify the subject’. The choice of subject matter was influenced by an essay by the English journalist, G.H. Saxon Mills, written in 1931 and read by Dupain soon after: ‘(photography) belongs to the new age … it is part and parcel of the terrific and thrilling panorama opening out before us today – of clean concrete buildings, steel radio masts, and the wings of the air line. But its beauty is only for those who themselves are aware of the ‘zeitgeist’ – who belong consciously and proudly to this age, and have not their eyes forever wistfully fixed on the past.’

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 - 2003) 'The way through the trees' 1938

 

Olive Cotton (Australian, 1911 – 2003)
The way through the trees
1938
Gelatin silver photograph
29.6 h x 29.0 w cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Gift of the artist 1987

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 - 1992) 'An old country homestead, Western Australia' 1946

 

Max Dupain (Australian, 1911 – 1992)
An old country homestead, Western Australia
1946
Gelatin silver photograph

PHOTOGRAPH NOT IN EXHIBITION

 

 

The Ian Potter Museum of Art
The University of Melbourne,
Swanston Street (between Elgin and Faraday Streets)
Parkville, Melbourne, Victoria
Tel: +61 3 8344 5148

Opening hours:
Tuesday to Friday 10 am – 5 pm
Saturday and Sunday 12 – 5 pm

The Ian Potter Museum of Art website

LIKE ART BLART ON FACEBOOK

Back to top

06
May
15

Research paper: ‘Beginnings: The International Photographic Collection at the National Gallery of Victoria’ Dr Marcus Bunyan

May 2015

 

This is a story that has never been told. It is the story of how the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia set up one of the very first photography departments in a museum in the world in 1967, and employed one of the first dedicated curators of photography, only then to fail to purchase classical black and white masterpieces by international artists that were being exhibited in Melbourne and sold at incredibly low prices during the 1970s and early 1980s, before prices started going through the roof.

The NGV had a golden chance to have one of the greatest collections of classical photography in the world if only they had grasped the significance and opportunity presented to them but as we shall see – due to personal, political and financial reasons – they dropped the ball. By the time they realised, prices were already beyond their reach.

Justifications for the failure include lack of financial support, the purchasing of non-vintage prints and especially the dilemma of distance, which is often quoted as the main hindrance to purchasing. But as I show in this research essay these masterpieces were already in Australia being shown and sold in commercial photography galleries in Melbourne at around $150, for example, for a Paul Strand photograph. As a partial public institution the NGV needs to take a hard look at this history to understand what went wrong and how they missed amassing one of the best collections of classical photography in the world.

.
Dr Marcus Bunyan
May 2015

Word count: 5,594

 

Download this research paper:

Beginnings: The International Photographic Collection at the National Gallery of Victoria (2.1Mb Word doc)

 

Abstract

This research paper investigates the formation of the international photographic collection at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.

 

Keywords

Photographs, photography, 19th century photography, early Australian photography, Australian photography, international photography collection, National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria photography department, Art Gallery of New South Wales, National Gallery of Australia, Melbourne, photographic collections, curator.

 

 

Beginnings: The International Photographic Collection at the National Gallery of Victoria

Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Introduction

Invented by Louis Daguerre in 1839, the daguerreotype – a plate of copper coated in silver, sensitised to light by being exposed to halogen fumes – was the first publicly announced photographic process and the first to come into widespread use. The first photograph taken in Australia was a daguerreotype, a view of Bridge Street (now lost) taken by a visiting naval captain, Captain Augustin Lucas in 1841.1 The oldest surviving extant photograph in Australia is a daguerreotype portrait of Dr William Bland by George Barron Goodman taken in 1845 (see image below). This daguerreotype is now in the State Library of New South Wales collection.2

After these small beginnings, explored in Gael Newton’s excellent book Shades of Light,3 the Melbourne Public Library (later to become the State Library of Victoria) launched the Museum of Art in 1861 and the Picture Gallery in 1864, later to be unified into the National Gallery in 1870, a repository for all public art collections, the gallery being housed in the same building as the Library.4 The Pictures Collection (including paintings, drawings, prints, cartoons, photographs and sculpture) was started in 1859.5 The collection of photographs by the Library had both moral and educative functions. Photographs of European high culture reminded the colonists of links to the motherland, of aspirations to high ideals, especially in conservative Melbourne.6 Photographs of distant lands, such as Linnaeus Tripe’s Views of Burma, document other ‘Oriental’ cultures.7 Photographs of settlement and the development of Melbourne recorded what was familiar in an unknown landscape. “Documentation of both the familiar and the unknown intersected with the scientific desire for categorisation and classification.”8

It is not the purview of this essay to dwell on the development of photography in Australia during intervening years between the 1860s – 1960s, but suffice it to say that the collecting of photographs at the State Library of Victoria continued the archiving of Australian identity and place through the ability “to define the self, claim the nation and occupy the world.”9 Australian photographic practice followed the development of international movements in photography in these years: art and commerce from the 1860s – 1890s, Pictorialism from the 1900s – 1930s, Modernism in the 1930s – 1940s and documentary photography from the 1940s – 1960s. The development of Australian photography was heavily reliant on the forms of international photography. Analysis of these years can be found in Gael Newton’s book Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839 – 198810 and Isobel Crombie’s book Second sight: Australian photography in the National Gallery of Victoria.11

In 1959 the epic The Family of Man exhibition, curated by the renowned photographer Edward Steichen from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, toured Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide to massive crowds. Featuring 503 photographs by 273 famous and unknown photographers from 68 countries this exhibition offered a portrait of the human condition: birth, love, war, famine and the universality of human experience all documented by the camera’s lens.12 In Melbourne the exhibition was shown in a car dealer’s showroom (yes, really!) and was visited by photographers such as Jack Cato, Robert McFarlane, Graham McCarter.13 The photographs in the exhibition, accompanied by text, were printed “onto large panels up to mural size [and] gave The Family of Man works an unprecedented impact, even given the role illustrated magazines had played through most of the century.”14 This loss of the aura of the original, the authenticity of the vintage print, a print produced by the artist around the time of the exposure of the negative, would have important implications for the collection of international photographs in the fledgling National Gallery of Victoria photographic collection (even though Walter Benjamin saw all photography as destroying the authenticity of the original through its ability to reproduce an image ad nauseum).15 As Benjamin observes in his Illuminations,The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.”16 Other ways of looking at the world also arrived in Australia around the same time, namely Robert Frank’s seminal book The Americans,17 a road movie photographic view of American culture full of disparate angles, juke boxes, American flags, car, bikes and diners.18

 

Beginnings

While legislatively the National Gallery had split from the State Library of Victoria in 1944,19 it wasn’t until August, 1968 that the National Gallery of Victoria moved into it’s own building designed by Roy Grounds at 180 St Kilda Road (now known as NGV International).20 In the years leading up to the move the Trustees and Staff went on a massive spending spree:

But although the sources of income from bequests were limited during the year [1967], a somewhat increased Government purchasing grant continued, which, with the allowance made by the Felton Committee, seemed to stimulate Trustees and Staff almost to a prodigality of spending. Perhaps, too, an urge for as full a display as possible at the opening of the new Gallery contributed; for by the end of the year the entire grant for purchase until the end of June 1968 had been consumed, and as well some commitments made for the future. Only donations made from private sources, and through the generosity of the National Gallery society, enabled the rate of acquisition to be maintained.”21

.
Unfortunately, this profligacy did not include spending on photography. This was because the Department of Photography was only formed in April 1967 after the Director at the time, Dr Eric Westbrook, convinced the Trustees of the Gallery “that the time had come to allow photographs into the collection.”22 The impetus for establishing a photography collection “was the growing recognition and promotion of the aesthetics of photography.”23 The Department of Photography at the NGV thus became the first officially recognised curatorial photography department devoted to the collection of photography as an art form in its own right in Australia and one of only a few dedicated specifically to collecting photography in the world.24 While the collecting criteria of the NGV has always emphasised “the primacy of the object as an example of creative expression,”25 the fluid nature of photography was acknowledged in a 1967 report on the establishment of the Department of Photography.26

The new department, however, did not gain momentum until the establishment of a Photographic Subcommittee in October 1969 that consisted of the Director of the Gallery and three notable Melbourne photographers: Athol Shmith, Les Gray and Chairman, Dacre Stubbs, along with the Director of the National Gallery Art School, Lenton Parr. Advising the Committee were honorary representatives Albert Brown (in Adelaide) and Max Dupain (in Sydney).27 The Photographic Subcommittee defined the philosophies of the Department and began acquiring photographs for the collection.28 While the Department was located in the Gallery’s library and had no designated exhibition space at this time,29 Committee members stressed the need to make contacts with the international art world and fact-finding missions were essential in order to establish a curatorial department in Australia as no photography department had ever been established in Australia before. “Members were also concerned to position the new Department in an international context (achieved initially through linking the Gallery to an international exhibitions network and later by purchasing international photography.”30

Financial support and gallery space was slow in materialising and then (as now) “it was enlightened corporate and individual support that would significantly help the NGV to create its photography collection.”31 The first attributable international photograph to enter the collection was the 21.8 x 27.5 cm bromoil photograph Nude (1939) by the Czechoslovakian photographer Frantisek Drtikol in 1971 (Gift of C. Stuart Tompkins),32 an artist of which there remains only one work in the collection, and other early international acquisitions included twenty-seven documentary photographs taken during NASA missions to the moon in the years 1966 – 1969 (presented by Photimport in 1971)33 and work by French photographer M. Lucien Clergue in 1972, founder of the Arles Festival of Photography.34 Early international exhibitions included The Photographers Eye from the Museum of Modern Art in New York (facilitated through Albert Brown’s connections with photography curator John Szarkowski of MoMA).35

The purchasing of the Dritkol nude is understandable as he is an important photographer of people and nudes. “Drtikol made many portraits of very important people and nudes which show development from pictorialism and symbolism to modern composite pictures of the nude body with geometric decorations and thrown shadows, where it is possible to find a number of parallels with the avant-garde works of the period.”36 The acceptance of the set of twenty-seven NASA photographs is understandable but still problematic. Although some of the photographs are breathtakingly beautiful and they would have had some social significance at that time (the first lunar landing was in 1969), their relative ‘value’ as pinnacles of international documentary photography, both aesthetically and compositionally, must be questioned.37 One wonders on what grounds the Photographic Subcommittee recommended their acceptance at the very start of the collection of international photography for the Department of Photography when so many definitive photographs by outstanding masters of photography could have been requested as a donation instead. Similarly, the purchase by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1980 of over 108 space photographs by NASA, Washington, D.C. (manufacturer) for the international collection is equally mystifying when there was a wealth of European and American master photographers work being shown in exhibitions around Melbourne (and sold at very low prices, eg. $150 for a Paul Strand vintage print) that did not enter the collection.

In 1972 Jenny Boddington (with a twenty year background in documentary film)38 was appointed Assistant Curator of Photography. She was selected from fifty-three applicants,39 and was later to become the first full-time curator of photography at the NGV, the first in Australia and perhaps only the third ever full-time photography curator in the world. In 1973, the Melbourne photographer Athol Shmith, who sat on the Photographic Subcommittee, visited major galleries and dealers in London and Paris for five weeks and reserved small selections of non-vintage prints for purchase by Henri Lartigue, Bill Brandt, Paul Strand, Andre Kertesz, Edward Steichen and Margaret Bourke-White40 (non-contemporary ie. vintage work not being generally available at this time). Also in 1973 the corridor beside the Prints and Drawings Department opened as the first photography exhibition space, to be followed in 1975 by the opening of a larger photography gallery on the third floor.41

In 1975 Boddington made a six-week tour of Europe, London and America that included meeting photographers Andre Kertesz and Bill Brandt and the Director of the Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski.42 Boddington also spent four weeks viewing photography at the MoMA, time that radically changed her ideas about running the department, including the decision that priority be given to the acquisition of important overseas material. She states:

“My ideas about the running of my department are radically changed … I believe that for some time in the future immediate priority and all possible energy should be given to the acquisition of important overseas material, remembering that ours is the only museum in Australia with a consistent policy of international collecting, and that effort in the initiation and mounting of exhibitions can be saved by showing some of the best work we have already purchased.”43

As Suzanne Tate notes in her Postgraduate Diploma Thesis, Boddington “was also determined to achieve autonomy from the Photographic Subcommittee, and to act on her own judgement, as other curators did.”44 Perhaps this understandable desire for autonomy and the resultant split and aversion (towards the Photographic Subcommittee) can be seen as the beginning of the problems that were to dog the nascent Photography department. In 1976 the Photographic Subcommittee was discontinued although Les Gray (who expressed a very ‘camera club’ aesthetic) continued to act as honorary advisor.45 The Photography department continued to collect both Australian and international photography in equal measure (but of equal value?) and held exhibitions of international photography from overseas institutions (including the early exhibition The Photographer’s Eye in 1968)46 and from the permanent collection (such as an exhibition of work by Andre Kertész, Bill Brandt and Paul Strand)47 in order to educate the public, not only in the history of the medium but how to ‘see’ photography and read ‘good’ photographic images from the mass of consumer images in the public domain.48

 

Paradigms and problems of international photography collecting at the National Gallery of Victoria

.
It does not do to be impatient in the business of collecting for an art museum. A public collection is a very permanent thing. It is really necessary to think in terms of the future and how our photographs and our century will appear in that future. We would like those in the future to inherit material that is intelligible both for itself and in relation to the other arts; at the same time there is the need to satisfy the present. A collection cannot be richer than the responses of its artists but it is hoped that it will represent a rich trawl of each historical period.”

.
Jenny Boddington 49

 

The current photography collection at The National Gallery of Victoria consists of over 15,000 photographs of which around 3,000 are by international artists (a ratio of 20% whereas the ratio between Australian/international photographers at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra is 60/40%).50 Dr Isobel Crombie, now Assistant Director, Curatorial and Collection Management and former Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria, notes in her catalogue introduction “Creating a Collection: International Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria,” from the exhibition Re_View: 170 years of Photography that several factors have affected the collection of international photographs at The National Gallery of Victoria. I have identified what I believe to be the three key factors:

  1. Lack of financial support
  2. The purchasing of non-vintage prints
  3. The dilemma of distance

 

Financial support

When the Department of Photography was set up at The National Gallery of Victoria the lack of adequate funds tempered the Photography Subcommittees purchasing aspirations. This situation continued after the appointment of Jenny Boddington and continues to this day. Athol Shmith noted that there were two options for building a collection: one was to spend substantial funds to acquire the work of a few key photographers, the other option (the one that was adopted) was a policy of acquiring a small number of works by a wide range of practitioners, a paradigm that still continues.51 “A broadly based collecting policy was established to purchase work by Australian and International practitioners from all periods of photographic history.”52

The majority of early acquisitions of the Department were overwhelmingly Australian but this collection policy broadened dramatically after the overseas travel of Athol Shmith and Jenny Boddington.53 Cultural cringe was prevalent with regard to Australian photography and it was rarely, if ever, talked about as art. Australian photography was still in the hands of the camera clubs and magazines and influenced by those aesthetics… but the ability to purchase the desired international work was severely curtailed due, in part, to the low exchange rate of the Australian dollar. In 1976 one Australian dollar was worth approximately US 40 cents. Another reason was the lack of money to purchase international work. In the early 1970s the Department had approximately $3,000 a year to purchase any work (international or Australian) that gradually built up to about $30,000 per annum in the mid 1970s. In 1981-82, this was reduced to almost zero because of the financial crisis and credit squeeze that enveloped Australia. This lack of funds to purchase work was compounded by sky rocketing prices for international photographs by renowned photographers in the early 1980s.

While generous help over eight years from Kodak (Australasia) Pty. Ltd had helped buy Australian works for the collection (a stipulation of the funds),54 money for international acquisitions had been less forthcoming. In a catalogue text from 1983 Boddington notes,

.
“… classic, well-known photographs are now very expensive indeed. One can only look back with sincere appreciation to the days when the department’s purchasing budget was $1000 a year and the trustees agreed to buy 27 Bill Brandts, whilst the National Gallery Society donated a further 13 from ‘Perspective of Nudes’, thus concluding out first major international purchase, happily before Brandt’s prices quintupled in a single blow early in 1975. Photography was then beginning to be a factor in the market place of art and a budget of $1000 a year was no longer adequate – even for the purchase of Australian work! Where funds are limited (as they are) a fairly basic decision has to be made as to the direction a collection will follow. Here in Melbourne we have on the whole focused on the purest uses of straight photography as it reflects broad cultural concerns …”
55

.
By 1976 the Felton Bequest purchased works by Julie Margaret-Cameron (one image!) and the NGV purchased thirty-four André Kertész, evidence that the status of the Photography department was rising. Throughout the remainder of the 1970s and early 1980s, eighty works were acquired by artists such as Imogen Cunningham (five images), Edward Muybridge (two images – the only two in the collection), Lois Conner (three images) and Man Ray (eleven images).56 In 1995 Isobel Crombie revised the collecting policy of the Department and she notes in “Collecting Policy for the Department of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (Revised October 1995),” Appendix 1 in Suzanne Tate’s Postgraduate Diploma Thesis under the heading ‘International Photography’57 that, “Given our financial resources extremely selective purchases are to be made in this area to fill those gaps in the collection of most concern to students and practicing photographers.”58 Crombie further notes that the contemporary collection is an area that needs much improvement whilst acknowledging the dramatic increases in prices asked and realised for prime photographs and the restricted gallery funds for purchases.59

While today the importance of philanthropy, fund raising and sponsorship is big business within the field of museum art collecting one cannot underestimate the difficulties faced by Boddington in collecting photographs by international artists during the formative years of the collection. As photography was liberated to become an art form in the early 1970s through the establishment of museum departments, through the emergence of photographic schools and commercial photographic galleries (such as the three commercial photography galleries showing Australian and international work in Melbourne: Brummels (Rennie Ellis), Church Street Photographic Centre (Joyce Evans) and The Photographers Gallery (Paul Cox, John Williams, William Heimerman and Ian Lobb), photography was given a place to exist, a place to breathe and become part of the establishment. But my feeling is that the status of photography as an art form, which was constantly having to be fought for, hindered the availability of funding both from within the National Gallery of Victoria itself and externally from corporate and philanthropic institutions and people.

To an extent I believe that this bunker mentally hindered the development of the photographic collection at the National Gallery of Victoria until much more recent times. Instead of photography being seen as just art and then going out and buying that art, the battle to define itself AS art and defend that position has had to be replayed again and again within the NGV, especially during the late 1970s-1980s and into the early 1990s.60 This is very strange position to be in, considering that the NGV had the prescience to set up one of the first ever photography departments in a museum in the world. Then to not support it fully or fund it, or to really understand what was needed to support an emergent art form within a museum setting so that the masterpieces vital for the collection could to be purchased, is perplexing to say the least. I also wonder whether more could not have been done to attract philanthropy and funds from personal and big business enterprises to support international acquisitions. I also wonder about the nature of some of the international purchases for the Department of Photography (the choice of photographer or photographs purchased) and the politics of how those works were acquired.

 

The purchasing of non-vintage prints

The paradigm for collecting international photographs early in the history of the Department of Photography 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.”61

.
This assertion is debatable. While many museums including the NGV preferred to acquire portfolios of modern reprints as a speedy way of establishing a group of key images, Crombie notes in the catalogue essay to 2nd Sight: Australian Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria that 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.”62 Crombie’s text postulates 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.63 I believe that this statement is only a partial truth. While modern prints may have been acceptable there has always been a premium placed on the vintage print, a known value above and beyond that of modern prints, even at the very dawn of photography collecting in museums. I believe that price (which is never mentioned in this discussion) is the major reason for the purchase of non-vintage prints. In Crombie’s “Collecting Policy for the Department of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (Revised October 1995),” she notes under the heading ‘Past Collecting Policy’ Point 1 that “Many non-vintage photographs have been collected … Purchase of non-vintage prints should not continue though we may we accept such photographs as gifts on occasion.”64

I vividly remember seeing a retrospective of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson at the Dean Gallery in Edinburgh in 2005. One room consisted of small, jewel-like vintage prints that were amazing in their clarity of vision and intensity of the resolution of the print. In the other three rooms there were large blown-up photographs of the originals, authorised by the artist. Seen at mural size the images fell apart, the tension within the picture plane vanished and the meaning of the image was irrevocably changed. Even as the artist’s intentions change over time, even as the artist reprints the work at a later stage, the photograph is not an autonomous object – it becomes a post-structuralist textual site where the artist and curator (and writers, conservators, historians and viewers) become the editors of the document and where little appeal can be made to the original intentions of the author (if they are known).65 While change, alteration, editing, revision and restoration represent the true life of objects66 (and noting that the same re-inscription also happens with vintage photographs), the purchase of non-vintage prints eliminates the original intention of the artist. This is not to say that the modern printing, such as Bill Brandt’s high contrast version of People sheltering in the Tube; Elephant and Castle, underground station (1940 printed 1976, below) cannot become the famous version of the image, but that some acknowledgement of the history of the image must be made. Ignoring the negative/print split is problematic to say the least, especially if the original was printed with one intention and the modern print with an entirely different feeling. This is not a matter of refinement of the image but a total reinterpretation (as in the case of the Brandt). While all artists do this, a failure to acknowledge the original vision for a work of art and the context in which it was taken and printed – in Brandt’s case he was asked by the War Office to record the Blitz, in which Londoners sheltered from German air raids in Underground stations – can undermine the reconceptualisation of the modern print.

 

Bill Brandt. 'People sheltering in the Tube; Elephant and Castle, underground station' 1940

 

Bill Brandt
People sheltering in the Tube; Elephant and Castle, underground station
1940
Silver gelatin print
© Bill Brandt Archive © IWM Non-Commercial License
Photograph used under conditions of “fair use” for the purpose of academic research

 

Civilians sheltering in Elephant and Castle London Underground Station during an air raid in November 1940. Elephant and Castle London Underground Station Shelter: People sleeping on the crowded platform of Elephant and Castle tube station while taking shelter from German air raids during the London Blitz.

 

Bill Brandt. 'People sheltering in the Tube; Elephant and Castle, underground station' 1940 printed 1976

 

Bill Brandt
People sheltering in the Tube; Elephant and Castle, underground station
1940 printed 1976
Silver gelatin print
34.4 x 29.3 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1974

© Bill Brandt Archive
Photograph used under conditions of “fair use” for the purpose of academic research

NB. Note the removal of the man sitting up at right in mid-foreground

 

 

The dilemma of distance

While the dilemma of distance is cited as an obstacle to the collection of international photographs by the Department of Photography in the early 1970s by Isobel Crombie,67 this observation becomes less applicable by the middle of the decade. Master prints from major international photographers were available for purchase in Australia by The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra (which had been collecting photography since the early 1970s),68 The Art Gallery of New South Wales (which established a Department of Photography in 1974),69 and The National Gallery of Victoria, through exhibitions at newly opened commercial galleries in both Melbourne and Sydney. Public touring exhibitions were held of the work of international photographers, most notably British Council exhibition of Bill Brandt in 1971, and the French Foreign Ministry’s major exhibition of Cartier-Bresson in 1974.70

In Melbourne commercial galleries specialising in photography and photographer run galleries had emerged, namely Brummels established by Rennie Ellis in 1972, The Photographers Gallery and Workshop founded by Paul Cox, Ingeborg Tyssen, John F. Williams and Rod McNicoll in 1973 (the Gallery was taken over in late 1974 by Ian Lobb, his first exhibition as director being at the beginning of 1975; Bill Heimerman joined as joint director at the beginning of 1976), and Church Street Gallery established by Joyce Evans in 1977.71 At the commercial galleries the main influence was overwhelmingly American:

“The impact of exhibitions held by the NGV was reinforced by exhibitions of the work of Ralph Gibson, William Clift, Paul Caponigro, Duane Michals and Harry Callahan at The Photographers Gallery and by the series of lectures and workshops that the artists conducted during those exhibitions. Joyce Evans also organised important exhibitions during this period but again the focus was American with work by Minor White, Jerry Uelsmann, Les Krims and others.”72

Shows of American photography, many of which toured extensively, became relatively commonplace and it was the first time Australian photographers and the general public had access to such a concentration of international photography in a variety of styles.73 Ian Lobb, who took over the running of the Photographers Gallery in late 1974 with Bill Heimerman), notes that the first exhibition of international photography at the gallery was that of Paul Caponigro in 1975.74

“We sold 22 prints which he told us was the second highest sale he had made to that point. With the success of the Caponigro show, we closed the gallery for a few months while the gallery was rebuilt. I took Bill as a business partner, and he made a trip to the USA to set-up some shows. From 1975, every second show was an international show.”75

Lobb observes that,

“The initial philosophy was simply to let people see the physical difference between the production of prints overseas and locally. After a while this moved from the Fine Print to other concerns both aesthetic and conceptual. The gallery at best, just paid for itself. During international shows the attendance at the gallery was high. During Australian shows the attendance was low.”76

.
From 1975 – 1981 The Photographers Gallery held exhibitions of August Sander (German – arranged by Bill Heimerman), Edouard Boubat (France), Emmet Gowin (USA – twice), Paul Caponigro (USA – twice), Ralph Gibson (UK – twice, once of his colour work), William Eggelston (USA), Eliot Porter (USA), Wynn Bullock (USA), William Clift (USA), Harry Callahan (USA), Aaron Siskind (USA – twice, once with a show hung at Ohnetitel) Jerry Uelsmann (USA), Brett Weston (USA). There was also an exhibition of Japanese artist Eikoh Hosoe (Japan) and his Ordeal by Roses series in 1986. These exhibitions comprise approximately 60% of all international exhibitions at The Photographers Gallery during this time, others being lost to the vagaries of memory and the mists of time. Prices ranged from $100 per print (yes, only $100 for these masterpieces!!) in the early years rising to $1500 for a print by Wyn Bullock towards the end of the decade.77 At Church Street Photographic Centre the focus was predominantly on Australian and American artists, with some British influence. Artists exhibited other than those noted above included Athol Shmith, Rennie Ellis, Wes Placek, Fiona Hall, Herbert Ponting, Julia Margaret Cameron, Eugène Atget, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jack Cato, Norman Deck, Jan Saudek, Robert Frank, Edouard Boubat, Jerry Uelsmann and Albert Renger-Patzsch to name just a few.78

The purchasing of vintage prints by major international artists from these galleries by the National Gallery of Victoria was not helped by the allegedly strained relationships that Boddington had with the directors of these galleries. The feeling I get from undertaking the research is that one of the problems with Boddington’s desire to achieve autonomy and make her own decisions about what to purchase for the Photography Department (being strong willed) was that she ignored opportunities that we right here in Melbourne – because of the aforesaid relationships and lack of money (a lack of support from the hierarchy of the National Gallery of Victoria).

 

Conclusion

It would be a great pity if the oral history of the early exhibition of international photographers in Melbourne was lost, for it is a subject worthy of additional research. It would also be interesting to undertake further research in order to cross-reference the purchases of the Department of Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria in the years 1975-1981 with the independent international exhibitions that were taking place at commercial galleries in Melbourne during this time. What international photographs were purchased from local galleries, what choices were made to purchase or not purchase works, what works were actually purchased for the collection and what were the politics of these decisions?

For example, during 1976 nine photographs by the Italian photographer Mario Giacomelli (1925-2000) entered the collection as well as nineteen photographs by German photographer Hedda Morrison; in 1977 twelve photographs entered the collection by a photographer name Helmut Schmidt (a photographer whose name doesn’t even appear when doing a Google search). Under what circumstances did these photographs come into the collection? While these people might be good artists they are not in the same league as the stellar names listed above that exhibited at The Photographers Gallery and Church Street Photographic Centre. Questions need to be asked about the Department of Photography acquisitions policy and the independent choices of the curator Jennie Boddington, especially as the international prints were here in Melbourne, on our doorstep and not liable to the tyranny of distance.

Dr Isobel Crombie notes that the acquisitions policies were altered so that there was no major duplication between collections within Australia79 but it seems strange that, with so many holes in so many collections around the nation at this early stage, major opportunities that existed to purchase world class masterpieces during the period 1975-81 were missed by the Department of Photography at the NGV.

While 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.”80 Crombie further observes that major contemporary photographers work can cost over a million dollars a print and the cost of vintage historical prints are also prohibitively high,81 so the ability to fill gaps in the collection is negligible, especially since the photography acquisitions budget is approximately 0.5-1 million dollars a year.82

Crombie’s time scale seems a little late for as we have seen in this essay, opportunities existed locally to purchase world class prints from master international photographers before prices rose to an exorbitant level. Put simply, the NGV passed up the opportunity to purchase these masterworks at reasonable prices for a variety of reasons (personal, political and financial) before the huge price rises of the early 1980s. They simply missed the boat.

I believe that this subject is worthy of further in-depth research undertaken without fear nor favour. While it is understandable that the NGV would want to protect it’s established reputation, the NGV is a partial public institution that should not be afraid to open up to public scrutiny the formative period in the history of the international collection of photography, in order to better understand the decisions, processes and photographic prints now held in it’s care.

.
Dr Marcus Bunyan
May 2015

Word count: 5,594

 

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. 1936

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Shocken, 1969

Boddington, Jennie. International Photography: 100 images from the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. Adelaide: The Art Gallery of South Australia, 1983

Boddington, Jennie. Overseas Travel by Assistant Curator of Photography. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1976

Boddington, Jennie. Modern Australian Photographs. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1976

Cox, Leonard B. The National Gallery of Victoria, 1861-1968: The Search for a Collection. Melbourne: The National Gallery of Victoria; Brown Prior Anderson Pty Ltd, 1971

Crombie, Isobel. Re_View: 170 years of Photography. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2009

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

Downer, Christine. “Photographs,” in Galbally, Ann [et al]. The first collections: the Public Library and the National Gallery of Victoria in the 1850s and the 1860s. Parkville, Vic.,: The University of Melbourne Museum of Art, 1992, pp. 73-79

Frank, Robert. The Americans. Washington: Steidl/National Gallery of Art, Revised edition, May 30, 2008

Newton, Gael. Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Canberra: Australian National Gallery, Collins, 1988

Tate, Suzanne. Photographic Collections in Victoria: Waverley City Gallery, Horsham Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria: An Analysis of Past History and Future Directions. The University of Melbourne: Postgraduate Diploma Thesis, 1998

 

 

George Baron Goodman, d. 1851. [Dr William Bland, ca. 1845 - portrait] c. 1845

 

George Baron Goodman, d. 1851
[Dr William Bland]
c. 1845
Daguerreotype (ninth plate daguerreotype in Wharton case)
7.5 x 6.3 cm
© State Library of New South Wales collection
Photograph used under conditions of “fair use” for the purpose of academic research

 

This daguerreotype is the earliest known surviving photograph taken in Australia. It is probably that mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald 14/1/1845, page 2, top column 5… It would appear to be a product of Goodman’s new studio at 49 Hunter Street, Sydney (see SMH 5/8/1844), before the introduction of hand colouring (see SMH 9/1/1845) and before the introduction of decorative backgrounds (see SMH 25/4/1846). It was probably produced between November 1844 and early January 1845 – Alan Davies, Curator of Photographs, State Library of NSW, 1993. (Image used for research under fair use conditions).

 

Front cover of John Szarkowski's book 'The Photographers Eye'

 

Front cover of John Szarkowski’s book The Photographers Eye, originally published by The Museum of Modern Art in 1966

 

André Kertész. 'A Bistro at Les Halles, Paris' 1927

 

André Kertész
A Bistro at Les Halles, Paris
1927
Gelatin silver photograph
17.7 x 24.7 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1976
Photograph used under conditions of “fair use” for the purpose of academic research

 

Julia Margaret Cameron. 'Mrs Herbert Duckworth, her son George, Florence Fisher and H. A. L. Fisher' c. 1871

 

Julia Margaret Cameron
Mrs Herbert Duckworth, her son George, Florence Fisher and H. A. L. Fisher
c. 1871
Albumen silver photograph
31.0 x 22.7 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of the Herald & Weekly Times Limited, Fellow, 1979
Photograph used under conditions of “fair use” for the purpose of academic research

 

Imogen Cunningham. 'Leaf pattern' c. 1929; printed 1979

 

Imogen Cunningham
Leaf pattern
c. 1929; printed 1979
Gelatin silver photograph
33.0 x 26.1 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased 1979
Photograph used under conditions of “fair use” for the purpose of academic research

 

NASA, Washington, D.C. (manufacturer) 'Instrument called Gnomon to determine size and distance of objects on moon' 1969

 

NASA, Washington, D.C. (manufacturer)
Instrument called Gnomon to determine size and distance of objects on moon
1969
Gelatin silver photograph on aluminium
49.0 x 39.0 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Presented by Photimport, 1971
Photograph used under conditions of “fair use” for the purpose of academic research

 

Neil Armstrong. 'Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the Moon near the leg of the Lunar Module (LM)' 1969

 

Neil Armstrong / NASA, Washington, D.C. (manufacturer)
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot, walks on the surface of the Moon near the leg of the Lunar Module (LM)
1969
Colour transparency
50.8 x 40.6 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased 1980
Photograph used under conditions of “fair use” for the purpose of academic research

 

 

Endnotes

  • 1. Anon. “Photography in Australia,” on Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 01/08/2014.
  • 2. “Daguerreotype Portrait of Dr William Bland circa 1845,” on the State Library of New South Wales website [Online] Cited 27/07/2014.
  • 3. Newton, Gael. Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Canberra: Australian National Gallery, Collins, 1988 [Online] Cited 02/06/2014.
  • 4. Fennessy, Kathleen. “For ‘Love of Art’: The Museum of Art and Picture Gallery at the Melbourne Public library 1860 – 1870,” in The La Trobe Journal 75, Autumn, 2005, p. 5 [Online] Cited 27/07/2014.
  • 5. Anon. “Pictures,” on the State Library of Victoria website [Online] Cited 02/09/2010. No longer available.
  • 6. Fox, Paul. “Stretching the Australian Imagination: Melbourne as a Conservative City,” in The La Trobe Journal 80, Spring, 2007, p. 124 [Online] Cited 27/07/2014.
  • 7. Tsara, Olga. “Linnaeus Tripe’s ‘Views of Burma’,” in The La Trobe Journal 79, Autumn, 2007, p. 55 [Online] Cited 27/07/2014.
  • 8. Crombie, Isobel. “Likenesses as if by magic: The early years 1840s – 1850s,” in Second sight: Australian photography in the National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2002, p. 15.
  • 9. Fox, Paul Op. cit., p. 124.
  • 10. Newton, Gael. Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Canberra: Australian National Gallery, Collins, 1988 [Online] Cited 02/07/2014. Chapter 11 “Live in the Year 1929” and Chapter 12 “Commerce and Commitment.”
  • 11. Crombie, Isobel. Second sight: Australian photography in the National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2002. See chapters “In a new light: Pictorialist photography 1900s – 1930s” (p.38), “New Photography: Modernism in Australia 1930s – 1940s” (p.50) and “Clear statements of actuality: Documentary photography 1940s – 1960s” (p.64).
  • 12. Anon. “The Family of Man,” on Wikipedia [Online] Cited 02/09/2014
  • 13. Newton, Gael. Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Canberra: Australian National Gallery, Collins, 1988 [Online] Cited 02/06/2010. Chapter 13 “Photographic Illustrators: The Family of Man and the 1960s – an end and a beginning” and Footnote 13.
  • 14. Ibid., See also the layout and size of the photographic murals on the Musuem THE FAMILY OF MAN, Chateau de Clervaux / Luxembourg website, the only permanent display of the exhibition left in the world. [Online] Cited 02/09/2014.
  • 15. “Benjamin’s work balances, often with paradoxical results, tensions between aspects of experience: the experiences simultaneously of being too late and too early (too soon) in the temporal dimension (c.f. Hamlet’s “the time is out of joint”) and being both distant and close (in the spatial dimension), and anyway of being both temporal and spatial. The concept of “aura,” which is one of Benjamin’s most influential contributions, is best understood in terms of these tensions or oscillations. He says that “aura” is a “strange web of space and time” or “a distance as close as it can be.” The main idea is of something inaccessible and elusive, something highly valued but which is deceptive and out of reach. Aura, in this sense, is associated with the nineteenth century notions of the artwork and is thus lost, Benjamin argues, with the onset of photography. At first photographs attempted to imitate painting but very quickly and because of the nature of the technology photography took its own direction contributing to the destruction of all traditional notions of the fine arts.”
    Phillips, John. On Walter Benjamin. [Online] Cited 02/06/2014.
    “One might generalize by saying: the technique of reproduction detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition. By making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”
    Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. 1936, Section 2. [Online] Cited 02/06/2014.
  • 16. Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Shocken, 1969, p. 236.
  • 17. Frank, Robert. The Americans. Washington: Steidl/National Gallery of Art, Revised edition, May 30, 2008.
  • 18. Newton, op.cit., Chapter 13.
  • 19. Anon. “A chronology of events in the history of the State Library of Victoria,” on the State Library of Victoria website. [Online] Cited 03/06/2010. No longer available.
  • 20. See Cox, Leonard B. The National Gallery of Victoria, 1861 – 1968: The Search for a Collection. Melbourne: The National Gallery of Victoria; Brown Prior Anderson Pty Ltd, 1971.
  • 21. Ibid., p. 378.
  • 22. Crombie, Isobel. op cit., Introduction p. 7.
  • 23. Crombie, Isobel. op cit., Introduction p. 7.
  • 24. Westbrook, Eric. “Minutes of the Photographic Subcommittee” 22/07/1970 quoted in Tate, Suzanne. Photographic Collections in Victoria: Waverley City Gallery, Horsham Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria: An Analysis of Past History and Future Directions. The University of Melbourne: Postgraduate Diploma Thesis, Chapter One, 1998, pp. 12-13. Other institutions included the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, Berlin Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the Art Institute of Chicago.
  • 25. Crombie, Isobel. op. cit., Introduction p. 6.
  • 26. Westbrook, Eric and Brown, Albert. “Establishment of Photography at the Victorian Arts Centre,” in Minutes of Trustees Reports, NGV, 4th April, 1967, p. 886 quoted in Crombie, Isobel. op cit., Introduction p. 6. Footnote 2.
  • 27. See Crombie, Isobel. op cit., Introduction p. 8 and Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 14-15.
  • 28. NGV Trustees. National Gallery of Victoria Annual Report 1969 – 70. Melbourne, 1970, np quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 14-15.
  • 29. NGV Photographic Subcommittee. Report. Melbourne, 1970, p. 2 quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. p. 16.
  • 30. Crombie, Isobel. op cit., Introduction p. 8.
  • 31. 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. 7.
  • 32. Ibid.,
  • 33. NGV Trustees. National Gallery of Victoria Annual Report 1971-72. Melbourne, 1970, np quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. p. 16.
  • 34. NGV Trustees. National Gallery of Victoria Annual Report 1972-73. Melbourne, 1970, np quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. p. 16.
  • 35. NGV Trustees. National Gallery of Victoria Annual Report 1969-70. Melbourne, 1970, np quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. p. 16.
  • 36. Anon. “Frantisek Drtikol,” on Wikipedia website [Online] Cited 06/10/2014.
  • 37. Some of these images have been shown for the first time in over twenty years in the 2009 exhibition Light Years: Photography and Space in the third floor photography gallery at NGV International.
  • 38. “After Eureka Stockade Boddington went to work at Film Australia and in 1950 worked for the GPO Film Unit. With the introduction of television she went to work at the ABC as an editor. She and her second husband cameraman Adrian Boddington would then set up their own company Zanthus Films. After his death she became the curator of photography at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1971.”
    Allen, J. “Australian Visions. The films of Dahl and Geoffrey Collings,” in Eras Journal Edition 4, December 2002, Footnote 33 [Online] Cited 14/10/2014
  • 39. Minutes of the NGV Photographic Subcommittee. Melbourne, 16/05/1972 quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 17-18.
  • 40. 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.
  • 41. NGV Trustees. National Gallery of Victoria Annual Report 1974-75. Melbourne, 1975, p. 24 quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 17-18.
  • 42. Boddington, J. Overseas Travel by Assistant Curator of Photography. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1976, pp. 1-3 quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 18-19.
  • 43. Boddington, J. quoted in 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.
    See also Boddington, J. quoted in quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 18-19.
  • 44. Boddington, J. Overseas Travel by Assistant Curator of Photography. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1976, pp. 1-3 quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 18-19.
  • 45. NGV Trustees. National Gallery of Victoria Annual Report 1975-76. Melbourne, 1976, p. 26 quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 18-19.
  • 46. See 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.
  • 47. NGV Trustees. National Gallery of Victoria Annual Report 1975-76. Melbourne, 1976, p. 27 quoted in Tate, Suzanne. op cit., Chapter 2: The Photography Department of the National Gallery of Victoria. pp. 18-19.
  • 48. See Crombie, Op. cit., p. 9.
  • 49. Boddington, Jenny. Modern Australian Photographs. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1976. Catalogue essay.
  • 50. See Crombie, Op. cit., p. 7.
    “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.”
    O’Hehir, Anne. “VIP: very important photographs from the European, American and Australian photography collection 1840s – 1940s” exhibition 26 May – 19 August 2007 on the National Gallery of Australia website [Online] Cited 12/10/2014.
  • 51. See Crombie, Op. cit., p. 9.
  • 52. Crombie, Isobel. “Collecting Policy for the Department of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (Revised October 1995),” in Tate, Suzanne. Photographic Collections in Victoria: Waverley City Gallery, Horsham Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria: An Analysis of Past History and Future Directions. The University of Melbourne: Postgraduate Diploma Thesis, 1998, p. 73. Appendix 1
  • 53. Crombie, Isobel. Second sight: Australian photography in the National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2002, p. 9
  • 54. Boddington, Jennie. Modern Australian Photographs. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1976. Catalogue essay.
  • 55. Boddington, Jennie. International Photography: 100 images from the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. Adelaide: The Art Gallery of South Australia, 1983. Catalogue essay.
    Here we must acknowledge the contradiction between the quotations at footnotes 52 and 55, where the former proposes a broad based collecting policy from all eras both internationally and locally and, a few years later, the other proposes a focus on the purest uses of straight photography (in other words pure documentary photography) as it reflects broad cultural concerns.
  • 56. Tate, Suzanne. Photographic Collections in Victoria: Waverley City Gallery, Horsham Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria: An Analysis of Past History and Future Directions. The University of Melbourne: Postgraduate Diploma Thesis, 1998, pp. 19-20
  • 57. Crombie, Isobel. “Collecting Policy for the Department of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (Revised October 1995),” cited in Tate, Suzanne. Ibid., Appendix 1 ‘International Photography’ Point 2, 1900 – 1980,  p. 73
  • 58. Ibid.,
  • 59. Ibid.,
  • 60. This battle is still being fought even in 2014. See Jones, Jonathan. “The $6.5m canyon: it’s the most expensive photograph ever – but it’s like a hackneyed poster in a posh hotel,” on The Guardian website 11/12/2014 [Online] Cited 15/11/2014
  • 61. 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
  • 62. Crombie, Isobel. Second sight: Australian photography in the National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2002, p. 10
  • 63. Ibid., p. 10
  • 64. Crombie, Isobel. “Collecting Policy for the Department of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (Revised October 1995),” in Tate, Suzanne. Photographic Collections in Victoria: Waverley City Gallery, Horsham Art Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria: An Analysis of Past History and Future Directions. The University of Melbourne: Postgraduate Diploma Thesis, 1998, p. 73. Appendix 1
  • 65. McCaughy, Patrick. Review of ‘Securing the Past: Conservation in Art, Architecture and Literature’ by Paul Eggert on The Australian newspaper website [Online] December 2nd, 2009. Cited 01/01/2015
  • 66. Ibid.,
  • 67. 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
  • 68. O’Hehir, Anne. op.cit.
  • 69. Dean, Robert. “Foreign Influences in Australian Photography 1930 – 80.” Lecture delivered at Australian Photographic Society Conference (APSCON), Canberra, 2000, p. 10. [Online] Cited 01/01/2015 Download the lecture (40kb pdf)
  • 70. Ibid.,
  • 71. Ibid., See also footnote 28
  • 72. Ibid., p. 11
  • 73. Ibid.,
  • 74. Lobb, Ian. Text from an email to the author, 20th May, 2014
  • 75. Ibid.,
  • 76. Ibid.,
  • 77. Ibid.,
  • 78. Evans, Joyce. Text from an email to the author, 6th September 2014
  • 79. Crombie, op. cit., p. 10
  • 80. Ibid.,
  • 81. Ibid.,
  • 82. Vaughan, Gerard. Lecture to Master of Art Curatorship students by the Director of the National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne, 30/03/2010.

 

 

LIKE ART BLART ON FACEBOOK

Back to top

23
Feb
11

Vale Dr John Cato

.

It is with much sadness that I note the death of respected Australian photographer and teacher Dr John Cato. Son of Australian photographer Jack Cato, who wrote one of the first histories of Australian photography (The Story of the Camera in Australia (1955), John was apprentice to his father before setting up a commercial studio with Athol Shmith that ran from 1950 – 1971. Dr Cato then joined Shmith at the fledgling Prahran College of Advanced Education photography course in 1974, becoming head of the course when Shmith retired in 1979, a position he held until John retired in 1991.

I was fortunate enough to get to know John and his vivacious wife Dawn. I worked with him and co-curatored his retrospective with William Heimerman, ‘…and his forms were without number’ at The Photographers Gallery, South Yarra, in 2002. My catalogue essay from this exhibition is reproduced below.

John was always generous with his time and advice. His photographs are sensitive, lyrical renditions of the Australian landscape. He had a wonderful ear for the land and for the word, a musical lyricism that was unusual in Australian photographers of the early 1970s. He understood how a person from European background could have connection to this land, this Australia, without being afraid to express this sense of belonging; he also imaged an Aboriginal philosophy (that all spirits have a physical presence and everything physical has a spiritual presence) tapping into one of the major themes of his personal work: the mirror held up to reveal an’other’ world – the language of ambiguity and ambivalence (the dichotomy of opposites e.g. black/white, masculine/feminine) speaking through the photographic print.

His contribution to the art of photography in Australia is outstanding. What are the precedents for a visual essay in Australian photography before John Cato? I ask the reader to consider this question.

It would be fantastic if the National Gallery of Victoria could organise a large exhibition and publication of his work, gathering photographs from collections across the land, much like the successful retrospective of the work of John Davis held in 2010. Cato’s work needs a greater appreciation throughout Australia because of it’s seminal nature, containing as it does the seeds of later development for Australian photographers. His educational contribution to the development of photography as an art form within Australia should also be acknowledged in separate essays for his influence was immense. His life, his teaching and his work deserves nothing less.

Marcus Bunyan

.

.

‘… and his forms were without number’

John Cato: A Retrospective of the Photographic Work 1971 – 1991

.

This writing on the photographic work of Dr. John Cato from 1971 – 1991 is the catalogue essay to a retrospective of his work held at The Photographers Gallery in Prahran, Melbourne in 2002. Dr. Cato forged his voice as a photographic artist in the early 1970s when photography was just starting to be taken seriously as an art form in Australia. He was a pioneer in the field, and became an educator in art photography. He is respected as one of Australia’s preeminent photographers of the last century.

.

With the arrival of ‘The New Photography’1 from Europe in the early 1930’s, the formalist style of Modernism was increasingly adopted by photographers who sought to express through photography the new spirit of the age. In the formal construction of the images, the abstract geometry, the unusual camera angles and the use of strong lighting, the representation ‘of the thing in itself’2 was of prime importance. Subject matter often emphasised the monumentality of the factory, machine or body/landscape. The connection of the photographer with the object photographed was usually one of sensitivity and awareness to an external relationship that resulted in a formalist beauty.

Following the upheaval and devastation of the Second World War, photography in Australia was influenced by the ‘Documentary’ style. This “came to be understood as involved chiefly with creating aesthetic experiences … associated with investigation of the social and political environment.”3 This new movement of social realism, “… a human record intimately bound with a moment of perception,”4 was not dissimilar to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ (images a la sauvette) where existence and essence are in balance.5

The culmination of the ‘Documentary’ style of photography was ‘The Family of Man’ exhibition curated by Edward Steichen that toured Australia in 1959.6 This exhibition, seen many times by John Cato,7 had a theme of optimism in the unity and dignity of man. The structure of the images in ‘Documentary’ photography echoed those of the earlier ‘New Photography’.

Max Dupain “stressed the objective, impersonal and scientific character of the camera; the photographer could reveal truth by his prerogative of selection.”8 This may have been an objective truth, an external vocalising of a vision that concerned itself more with exterior influences rather than an internal meditation upon the subject matter.

.

.

John Cato
‘Untitled’ from the series ‘Essay I, Landscapes in a Figure’
1971 – 1979
Silver gelatin photograph

.

.

In 1971, John Cato’s personal photographic work was exhibited for the first time as part of the group show ‘Frontiers’ at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.9 ‘Earth Song’ emerged into an environment of social upheaval inflamed by Australian involvement in the Vietnam War. It provided a group of enthusiastic people who were beginning to be interested in photography as art, an opportunity to see the world, and photography, through a different lens. The 52 colour photographic prints in ‘Earth Song’, were shown in a sequence that used melodic line and symphonic form as its metaphoric basis, standing both as individual photographs and as part of a total concept.10

In the intensity of the holistic vision, in the connection to the subconscious, the images elucidate the photographers’ search for a perception of the world. This involved an attainment of a receptive state that allowed the cracks, creases and angles inherent in the blank slate of creation to become meaningful. The sequence contained images that can be seen as ‘acts of revelation’,11confirmed and expanded by supporting photographs, and they unearthed a new vocabulary for the discussion of spiritual and political issues by the viewer. They may be seen as a metaphor for life.

The use of sequence, internal meditation and ‘revelation’, although not revolutionary in world terms,12 were perhaps unique in the history of Australian photography at that time. During the production of ‘Earth Song’, John Cato was still running a commercial studio in partnership with the photographer Athol Shmith and much of his early personal work was undertaken during holidays and spare time away from the studio. Eventually he abandoned being a commercial photographer in favour of a new career as an educator, but found this left him with even less time to pursue his personal work.13

‘Earth Song’ (1970-1971) was followed by the black and white sequences:

.

‘Tree – A Journey’
18 images
1971 – 1973
‘Petroglyphs’
14 images
1971 – 1973
‘Seawind’
14 images
1971 – 1975
‘Proteus’
18 images
1974 – 1977
‘Waterway’
16 images
1974 – 1979

.

Together they form the extensive series ‘Essay I, Landscapes in a Figure,’ parts of which are held in the permanent photography collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.14

.

.

John Cato
‘Untitled’ from the series ‘Essay I, Landscapes in a Figure’
1971 – 1979
Silver gelatin photograph

.

.

The inspiration for ‘Essay I’ and later personal work came from many sources. An indebtedness to his father, the photographer Jack Cato, is gratefully acknowledged. Cato also acknowledges the influence of literature: William Shakespeare (especially the Sonnets, and As You Like It), William Blake, Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass), Lewis Carroll (Through the Looking Glass), the Bible; and of music (symphonic form), the mythology of the Dreamtime and Aboriginal rock paintings.15 Each body of work in ‘Essay I’ was based on an expression of nature, the elements and the Creation. They can be seen as ‘Equivalents’16 of his most profound life experiences, his life philosophy illuminated in physical form.
John Cato was able to develop the vocabulary of his own inner landscape while leaving the interpretation of this landscape open to the imagination of the viewer. Seeing himself as a photographer rather than an artist, he used the camera as a tool to mediate between what he saw in his mind’s eye, the subjects he photographed and the surface of the photographic negative.17 Photographing ‘in attention’, much as recommended by the teacher and philosopher Krishnamurti,18 he hoped for a circular connection between the photographer and the subject photographed. He then looked for verification of this connection in the negative and, eventually, in the final print.

‘Essay II, Figures in a Landscape,’ had already been started before the completion of ‘Essay I’and it consists of three black and white sequences:

.

‘Alcheringa’
11 images
1978 – 1981
‘Broken Spears’
11 images
1978 – 1983
‘Mantracks’
22 images in pairs
1978 – 1983

.

The photographs in ‘Essay II’ seem to express “the sublimation of Aboriginal culture by Europeans”19 and, as such, are of a more political nature. Although this is not obvious in the photographs of ‘Alcheringa’, the images in this sequence celebrating the duality of reality and reflection, substance and shadow, it is more insistent in the symbology of ‘Broken Spears’ and‘Mantracks’. Using the metaphor of the fence post (white man/black man in ‘Broken Spears’) and contrasting Aboriginal and European ‘sacred’ sites (in pairs of images in ‘Mantracks’), John Cato comments on the destruction of a culture and spirit that had existed for thousands of years living in harmony with the land.

In his imaging of an Aboriginal philosophy (that all spirits have a physical presence and everything physical has a spiritual presence) he again tapped one of the major themes of his personal work: the mirror held up to reveal an’other’ world. Cato saw that even as they are part of the whole, the duality of positive/negative, black/white, masculine/feminine are always in conflict.20 In the exploration of the conceptual richness buried within the dichotomy of opposites, Cato sought to enunciate the language of ambiguity and ambivalence,21 speaking through the photographic print.

The theme of duality was further expanded in his last main body of work, ‘Double Concerto: An Essay in Fiction’:

.

‘Double Concerto’ (Pat Noone)
30 images
1984-1990
‘Double Concerto’ (Chris Noone)
19 images
1985-1991

.

‘Double Concerto’ may be seen as a critique of the power of witness and John Cato created two ‘other’ personas, Pat Noone and Chris Noone, to visualise alternative conditions within himself. The Essay explored the idea that if you send two people to the same location they will take photographs that are completely different from each other, that tell a distinct story about the location and their self:

“For the truth of the matter is that people have mixed feelings and confused opinions and are subject to contradictory expectations and outcomes, in every sphere of experience.”22

This slightly schizophrenic confusion between the two witnesses is further highlighted by Pat Noone using single black and white images in sequence. Chris Noone, on the other hand, uses multiple colour images joined together to form panoramic landscapes that feature two opposing horizons. The use of colour imagery in ‘Double Concerto’, with its link to the colour work of‘Earth Song’, can be seen to mark the closing of the circle in terms of John Cato’s personal work. In Another Way of Telling, John Berger states that …

“Photography, unlike drawing, does not possess a language. The photographic image is produced instantaneously by the reflection of light; its figuration is not impregnated by experience or consciousness.”23

.

But in the personal work of John Cato it is a reflection of the psyche, not of light, that allows a consciousness to be present in the figuration of the photographic prints. The personal work is an expression of his self, his experience, his story and t(his) language, is our language, if we allow our imagination to speak.

Marcus Bunyan 2002

.

.

Footnotes

1 @
Newton, Gael. Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Sydney: Australian National Gallery, William Collins, 1988, p.109.
2 @
Newton, Gael. Max Dupain. Sydney: David Ell Press,1980, p.34.
3 @
Ibid., p.32.
4 @
Greenough, Sarah (et al). On the Art of Fixing a Shadow: 150 Years of Photography. Boston: National Gallery of Art, Bullfinch Press, 1989. p.256.
5 @
Ibid., p.256.
6 @
Newton, Gael. Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Sydney: Australian National Gallery, William Collins, 1988, p.131.
7 @
Ibid., p.131.
8 @
Newton, Gael. Max Dupain. Sydney: David Ell Press,1980, p.32.
9 @
Only the second exhibition by Australian photographers at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
10 @
Shmith, Athol. Light Vision No.1. Melbourne: Jean-Marc Le Pechoux (editor and publisher), Sept 1977, p.21.
11 @
Berger, John and Mohr, Jean. Another Way of Telling. New York: Pantheon Books,1982, p.118.
12 @
Hall, James Baker. Minor White: Rites and Passages. New York: Aperture, 1978.
13 @
Conversation with the photographer 29/01/1997, Melbourne, Victoria.
14 @
Newton, Gael. Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Sydney: Australian National Gallery, William Collins, 1988, p.135, Footnote 7; p. 149.
15 @
Conversation with the photographer 22/01/1997, Melbourne, Victoria.
16 @
Norman, Dorothy. Alfred Stieglitz. New York: Aperture, 1976, p.5.
17 @
Ibid.,
18 @
Krishnamurti. Beginnings of Learning. London: Penguin, 1975, p.131.
19 @
Strong, Geoff. Review. The Age. Melbourne, 28/04/1982.
20 @
Conversation with the photographer 22/01/1997, Melbourne, Victoria.
21 @
The principal definition for ambiguity in Websters Third New International Dictionary is:

“admitting of two or more meanings … referring to two or more things at the same time.” That for ambivalence is “contradictory and oscillating subjective states.”

Quoted in Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture and Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p.21.

22 @
Levine, Donald. The Flight From Ambiguity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
23 @
Berger, John and Mohr, Jean. Another Way of Telling. New York: Pantheon Books,1982, p.95.



Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Études’ 1994

Join 2,192 other followers

Follow Art_Blart on Twitter
Art Blart on Pinterest

Lastest tweets

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.

October 2017
M T W T F S S
« Sep    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
3031  

Archives

Categories