Posts Tagged ‘Rayogram

21
Apr
14

Text / review: ‘A Vocabulary of Printing and the Syntax of the Image’ from the exhibition ‘KHEM’ at Strange Neighbour, Fitzroy, Melbourne

Exhibition dates: 11th April – 3rd May 2014

Artists: Jane Brown, Ponch Hawkes, Siri Hayes, Ruth Maddison, Lloyd Stubber, David Tatnall, Claudia Terstappen
Curated By Linsey Gosper

 

A Vocabulary of Printing and the Syntax of the Image

 

“No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer It has chosen.”

“One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.”

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Minor White

 

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As an artist who originally trained in the alchemical, analogue art of photography, the magic of this process will always hold sway in my heart. No matter how many excellent digital photographs I see, there is always a longing for silver – that indescribable feeling of looking at a master printers work, an image that literally takes your breath away. I hardly ever get that in a digital print. For me, it’s the difference between the fidelity of a CD and the aura of an LP, with all its scratches and pops, hisses and, yes, atmosphere.

Minor White, that guru of enlightenment, knew how difficult it was to capture spirit in a photograph. To make a connection between photographer and object, back through a glass lens and a metal box onto a piece of plastic or glass (completing a Zen circle), then printed onto a piece of paper. There are three ways it goes: you see something (you previsualise it) and you don’t capture it in the negative; you don’t see it, and the negative surprises you; but, best of all, you see it and you capture it – the object of your attention reveals itself to you. Then all you have to do is print it – easier said than done. Much testing and assessing, dodging and burning to balance the print knowing that, as MW says, each negative is like a dragon that an image has to be wrenched from.

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No longer for ears …: sound
which like a deeper ear,
hears us, who only seem
to be hearing. Reversal of spaces.

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Extract from Rainer Maria Rilke Gong 1925

 

Emmet Gowin printing mask for The Hint That Is a Garden: Siena, Italy 1975

 

Emmet Gowin printing mask for The Hint That Is a Garden: Siena, Italy 1975 (below)

 

 

Emmet Gowin (American, born 1941)
The Hint That Is a Garden: Siena, Italy
Dedicated to Frederick Sommer, 1975
Gelatin silver print
19.5 x 24.5 cm. (7 11/16 x 9 5/8 in.)
Gift of Mrs. Saul Reinfeld

 

 

When you do the analogue printing yourself (or when assessing a digital test print at a lab such as CPL Digital), the most important thing is to understand the vocabulary of printing. In both analogue and digital printing it all starts from the negative/file. If you don’t understand your negative or digital file, what hope have you of attaining a good end result? You must study the negative to understand its pushes and pulls, what needs to be held back, what other areas brought forward in the image. You have to feel the balance within the negative/file in the sensibility of the print. Darren from CPL observes that he has a lot of photographers and students come in and say, “I don’t want it to be like that,” but then they can’t explain what they do want it to be like or how they can get there. They have no vocabulary of printing or how to get the “feel” that they want from the print. I believe this is where training in the analogue darkroom can stand digital photographers in good stead.

What photographers need to understand is the syntax of an image, “the system of organization used in putting lines together to form pictures that can stand as representations of particular objects,”1 where they is a clear association between the structure of photographic prints and the linguistic structure that makes verbal communication possible. Photographers are the Keepers of Light and photography broke the boundaries of the visual field that had been delimited by etchings and prints, to allow human beings to see far beyond the physical field of view, to have photographic power over space and time which fundamentally changed the scope of human consciousness.2 Photography makes drawing unnecessary in the physical sense, but through previsualisation photography is predicated on mental drawing (with light) and through the physical form of the photograph, the print, photography has a syntactical basis – which comes from the languages of the photographer inherent in human consciousness and the chemical, optical and mechanical relationships that make photography possible. Both feeling and technology.

I believe that these two things go hand in hand and when photographers have no language, no vocabulary to describe what they want from a photographic print, then they are basically coming up against the limitations of their feelings, technologies and the machine. “Genius is constantly frustrated – and tempered – by the machine.”3 As William Crawford observes, “You simply cannot look at photographs as if they were ends without means. Each is the culmination of a process in which the photographer makes his decisions and discoveries within a technological framework.”4 “Each step in the photographic process plays a syntactical role to the degree that it affects the way the information, the sentiment, the surprises, and the frozen moments found in photographs actually meet the eye.”5 In the case of the photographic print, this means understanding the emotional linguistic vocabulary of printing through the syntax of the image.

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With these thoughts in mind, the two standouts in this delightful group exhibition are Claudia Terstappen and Ponch Hawkes. Terstappen’s Brazilian rainforest photographs are as well seen and exquisitely printed as ever but this time they are slightly let down by the nearness of the frame and the colour of the moulding, both of which seen to limit the breathe of the image. Hawkes’ photographs are sublime (especially the two reproduced below), the best silver gelatin photographs that I have seen by an Australian artist in since Terstappen’s last solo exhibition In the Shadow of Change at Monash Gallery of Art. They have wonderful tonality and presence, and a quietness that really lets you contemplate the image through the beauty of the print – and a snip at only $800 each framed!

Other artists in the exhibition have singular images that are interesting (pictured below), but the major disappointment are the prints of Jane Brown. When I first saw the images of Brown’s Australian Gothic at Edmund Pearce Gallery in 2012 I said that they were, “small, darkly hewn, traditionally printed silver gelatin photographs… surrealist tinged, film noir-ish mise-en-scènes, the ones that emphasise the metaphorical darkness of the elements gathered upon the stage. Photographs such as Big TroutThe Female Factory, Adelong, New South Wales and Captain’s Flat Hotel, New South Wales really invoke a feeling of unhomely (or unheimlich), where nature is out of kilter. These images unsettle our idea of Oztraliana, our perceived sense of Self and our place in the world. They disrupt normal transmission; they transmutate the seen environment, transforming appearance, nature and form.”6 This was again the feeling that I got when I saw the series at a later exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Photography.

Not this time. The prints shown here are much darker and have become almost ungrammatical; where the syntax of the image has broken down so that the linguistic structure of the image makes communication nearly impossible. It is not enough just to make prints darker and darker, hoping for some mystery to magically appear in the image because it won’t. This is a case of overprinting the negative, forcing the vocabulary of the image through a wish to impart something emphatic, some condition of being from the negative that has been imperfectly understood. Is this because this is Edition 2 out of 7, a different printer and a different size? I don’t know the answer to those questions, but Brown really needs to go back to the negatives and reassess the results, especially as these nearly incomprehensible prints are selling for an overinflated $2,000 each framed.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for the Art Blart blog

 

Footnotes

1. Crawford, William. “Photographic Syntax,” in Crawford, William. The Keepers of Light: A History and Working Guide to Early Photographic Processes. Morgan and Morgan, 1979, p. 2
2. Ibid., p. 5
3. Ibid., p. 6
4. Ibid., p. 6
5. Ibid., p. 7
6. Bunyan, Marcus. Review: Jane Brown / Australian Gothic at Edmund Pearce Gallery, Melbourne, 6th May 2012 [Online] Cited 21st April 2014 http://wp.me/pn2J2-2RL

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

 

ps 6

 

William Crawford. “Photographic Syntax,” in William Crawford. The Keepers of Light: A History and Working Guide to Early Photographic Processes. Morgan and Morgan, 1979, p. 6

 

Claudia Terstappen. 'Jungle I (Brazil)' 1991

 

Claudia Terstappen
Jungle I (Brazil)
1991
from the series Ghosts at the Jucurucu
Silver gelatin print
46 x 68 cm

 

Lloyd Stubber. 'Untitled' 2012

 

Lloyd Stubber
Untitled
2012
Fibre-based silver gelatin print
11 x 14 inches

 

David Tatnall. 'Clifton Springs Jetty' 2012

 

David Tatnall
Clifton Springs Jetty
2012
From the series Coastal Pinholes
Silver gelatin contact print
20 x 25 cm

 

Ruth Maddison. 'Bellambi, NSW' 1989

 

Ruth Maddison
Bellambi, NSW
1989
Hand coloured gelatin silver print
19.6 x 49 cm
Vintage print, unique state

 

Ruth Maddison. 'Self-portrait #2' 2004

 

Ruth Maddison
Self-portrait #2
2004
From the series Light touches
Sun print on black and white photographic paper
Vintage print, unique state

 

 

“The process of analogue photography is created through darkness and light. To celebrate the launch of the Strange Neighbour Darkroom this exhibition brings together a group of artists who pursue and extend the practice of analogue and darkroom photography. These artists work across many of the countless possibilities of the medium: 35mm, medium format and large format photography, and their diverse processes include pinhole photography, photograms, sun prints, fibre printing and hand colouring. Contemporary photographers are driving the current resurgence in analogue photography and Strange Neighbour is excited to be able to facilitate this irreplaceable art form. Darkroom practice is unique and magickal, alive and well.”

Press release from the Strange Neighbour website

 

Khem; a possible derivative of the word alchemy, the native name of Egypt, is thought to mean black. Some scholars maintain that Khem is derived from a root meaning wise.1

Alchemy is described as chemistry endowed with magic, and alchemists as those who work with metals and keep these operations secret.2 Apart from the obvious associations of working with metals (silver) and chemistry, there are more subtle and intimate parallels between the art and science of alchemy and darkroom practice.

It is common among darkroom practitioners to consider the process as ‘magic’. When most people encounter printing their first photograph in the darkroom, the simple sight of an image appearing on the paper in the developer tray seems ‘magical’. Even experienced darkroom practitioners never lose this special feeling. Exhibiting artist, Siri Hayes notes, “Watching images come up in developing tray is as mysterious and exciting as any magic show. Perhaps more so as there are no tricks except that the photographic product is the grandest of illusions.”

Distinct from many other forms of photography, darkroom based practice is now specialised, with few people having access to the knowledge, equipment and skills associated with the medium. Like a secret esoteric order, few share this wisdom, and even those willing to teach it may keep special recipes, techniques and discoveries to themselves or within a select dedicated group. Some of this information, although scientific, is not completely understood in rational terms of facts or calculations, but is more related to intuition and perception. It is technical and it is intuitive.

The complex rituals associated with the process allow practitioners to get into a headspace that is conducive to contemplation, bringing forth intuition, allowing space for chance and universal cause and effect. In this art and science there are so many variables with endless possibilities. Ruth Maddison‘s Sun prints are made without camera, film, enlarger or developer. She states, “the tonal range depends on variables like paper stock, length of time in sun or shade, whether the objects are wet or dry…. and an unpredictable magic that happens when light sensitive paper is touched by light.”

In this unpredictable environment often mistakes lead to new ideas and create new methodologies. One of the charms of analogue processes is the discovery of beauty through error. Ponch Hawkes recalls this as disasters and wonderful happenstance. Claudia Terstappen remarks it is the number of variables in the darkroom that leaves the creative process wide open and it is often these inaccuracies caused by chemical reactions that lead to a new meaning. This is what makes analogue processes so valuable and irreplaceable. There are many effects in the analogue process that one can recreate with digital technologies, but not invent.

Imperfections caused by these variables or ‘mistakes’ may imbue the image with a ‘spirit’ and otherworldliness, as if the energy of a place or person has been captured. Black and white photography too has the ability to transcend time, memory and death. Jane Brown says, “I examine this a lot in my work – landscapes seem to have vestiges or traces of past life and memorials become otherworldly.” Claudia Terstappen’s work, “is motivated by the stories, beliefs and histories of the people who live there. Here people spoke about the forest spirits that one should be aware of. B+W images suggest a kind of silence.” At a symbolic level, silence is part of most sacred traditions3, and it is part of darkroom practice.

Using analogue processes and working in the darkroom can be aligned to the slow movement, of valuing quality over quantity and returning to a feeling of connectedness. For the images in this exhibition David Tatnall has used an 8 x 10 inch pinhole camera and made contact prints. He expresses of this technology, “my reasons for using this slow, cumbersome and fickle means to make photographs is because I feel it conveys the interaction of the sky and water, the presence of wind and the pulse of nature. I am particularly interested in how the long exposures and lack of sharpness make these features merge into something else… (The) simplicity: no lens, shutter or batteries, no need to upgrade, no click or buzz, no flashing lights or mega pixels no viewfinder and no distortion.” For Ruth Maddision, “she says of working with hand colouring, the pleasure of it – I love working on the real object again, and away from the screen.”

Clearly there is belief and an element of trust in the medium. Lloyd Stubber‘s images in this exhibition are taken from a one-month round the world trip. On return he processed the 15 rolls of film in his laundry. Perhaps the potential fear of loss is overwhelmed by the sense of anticipation, surprise and the flood of memories that return on seeing the work at a later date, as compared to digital, which is immediate and holds none of the mystery.

Another important distinction of darkroom and analogue practice from other forms of photography is the presence of artist’s hand throughout the entire progression of creation to final outcome. In each step of the process, significant choices are made from the many possibilities, from exposing light sensitive film in the camera, developing the film, to printing and finishing the art object. The artist’s mark is therefore not only discernible but also inherently valuable. To Ponch Hawkes, being the maker is of significance. For Terstappen, The physicality of arriving at the ‘perfect’ Gelatin Silver print – with its deep tonal ranges – is something that I highly value.

Contemporary artists are driving the current resurgence in analogue photography. This is a treasured, magickal4 and irreplaceable art form. It is with great pleasure that I declare the Strange Neighbour Darkroom open, and may it provide the space and opportunity for the love of darkroom practice to be enjoyed, shared and fostered.”

Linsey Gosper, curator, darkroom lover, 2014
1. Francis Melville. The Book of Alchemy. Quarto Publishing plc, 2002, p. 6
2. Kurt Seligman. Magic, Supernaturalism and Religion. Pantheon Books, 1948, p. 84
3. Ami Ronnberg (ed.,). The Book of Symbols. Taschen, 2010, p. 676
4. Magick, in the context of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema, is a term used to differentiate the occult from stage magic and is defined as the Science and Art of causing Change to occur in conformity with Will, including both mundane acts of will as well as ritual magic

 

Jane Brown. 'Decommissioned Art History Library, University of Melbourne' 2012-2013

 

Jane Brown
Decommissioned Art History Library, University of Melbourne
2012-2013
Fibre-based gelatin silver print
44 x 49.5 cm
Edition 2 of 7

 

Jane Brown. 'Lathamstowe' 2011- 2013

 

Jane Brown
Lathamstowe
2011- 2013
Fibre-based, gelatin silver print
46 x 44 cm
Edition 2 of 7

 

Ponch Hawkes. 'Silken Seam' 2005

 

Ponch Hawkes
Silken Seam
2005
Silver gelatin print
34 x 34 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Chrysalis Gallery, Melbourne

 

Ponch Hawkes. 'Rouleau' 2005

 

Ponch Hawkes
Rouleau
2005
Silver gelatin print
34 x 34cm
Courtesy of the artist and Chrysalis, Melbourne

 

Siri Hayes. 'Aquatic listening device' 2009

 

Siri Hayes
Aquatic listening device
2009
Silver gelatin print
39 x 45 cm
Courtesy of the artist and M.33, Melbourne

 

 

Strange Neighbour
395 Gore St, Fitzroy
Victoria Australia 3065
T: +61 3 9041 8727

Opening hours:
Wednesday – Saturday, 11am – 6pm

Strange Neighbour website

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24
Apr
12

Exhibition: ‘Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), Photographs’ at Jeu de Paume, Paris

Exhibition dates: 21st February – 29th April 2012

 

Berenice Abbott. 'New York Stock Exchange, New York City' 1933

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
New York Stock Exchange, New York City
1933
Gelatin silver print
24 x 19cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

 

It is not her portraits or the road trip photographs, nor her scientific work for which Berenice Abbott will be remembered. Firstly, she will always be remembered as the person who photographed Eugene Atget in 1927 just before he died and who bought the remainder of his negatives (after the French government had bought over 2,000 in 1920 and another 2,000 had been sold after his death). She then tirelessly promoted Atget’s work helping him gain international recognition until her sale of the archive to the Museum of Modern Art in 1968. Secondly, she is remembered for her magnificent photographs of New York City and its urban environs, photographs that show the influence of Atget in their attention to detail and understanding of the placement of the camera, and imaging of old and new parts of the city (much as Atget had photographed old Paris before it was destroyed). However, these photographs are uniquely her own, with their modernist New Vision aesthetic, bold perspectives and use of deep chiaroscuro to enhance form within the photograph. Abbott’s best known project, Changing New York (1935-39) eventually consisted of 305 photographs that document the buildings of Manhattan, some of which are now destroyed. As the text on Wikipedia insightfully notes:

“Abbott’s project was primarily a sociological study imbedded within modernist aesthetic practices. She sought to create a broadly inclusive collection of photographs that together suggest a vital interaction between three aspects of urban life: the diverse people of the city; the places they live, work and play; and their daily activities. It was intended to empower people by making them realise that their environment was a consequence of their collective behaviour (and vice versa). Moreover, she avoided the merely pretty in favour of what she described as “fantastic” contrasts between the old and the new, and chose her camera angles and lenses to create compositions that either stabilised a subject (if she approved of it), or destabilised it (if she scorned it).”

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In the text below Gaëlle Morel observes, “Rather than the kind of nostalgic approach often brought to bear on a city’s landmarks and typical sites, this ensemble offers an exploration of the nature of modernity and focuses on the ways in which the past and future are temporarily linked together. Seeking to reinvent the forms and functions of photography in relation to the practice of documentary, Abbott sets out to capture the “disappearance of the moment” by juxtaposing motifs from a city subject to an unprecedented process of demolition and reconstruction.”

While Abbott’s photographs are definitely modernist in nature I believe that today they can also be seen as deeply nostalgic, emerging as they do in the period after the Great Depression when the economy was on the move again, a peaceful time before the oncoming armageddon of the Second World War, closely followed by the fear of nuclear annihilation and the threat of communist indoctrination. They are timeless portraits of a de/reconstructed city. The images seem to float in the air, breathe in the shadows. This is the disappearance of the moment into the enigma of past, present, future – where the photograph becomes eternal, where the best work of both Atget and Abbott resides.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

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Many thankx to Jeu de Paume for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Treasury Building, New York City' 1933

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Treasury Building, New York City
1933
Gelatin silver print
51 x 40.5cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

 

Architecture

“The tempo of the city is not that of eternity, nor that of time, but that of the ephemeral. That is why recording it is so important, in both documentary and artistic terms.”

“All the photographs of New York took a long time to make, because the camera had to be carefully positioned. There is nothing fortuitous about these photographs.”

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The exhibition features a substantial collection from Abbott’s best known project, Changing New York (1935-39). Commissioned by the Roosevelt administration as part of its response to the nationwide economic crisis, Abbott saw this piece of work as both a way of documenting the City and as a personal work of art. Eighty of the 305 photographs taken by Abbott are on show here, along with various documents providing insight into the background of this major photographic undertaking, including posters and views of the exhibition organised by the Museum of the City of New York in 1937, sketches and historical notes made by the team of journalists working with Abbott on the project, and proofs and dummies of the layout made by the photographer before she started work.

Abbott homes in on the contrasts between old and new elements in the City’s structure. Her images alternate between a New Vision aesthetic, characterised by an emphasis on details and bold perspectives, and a more documentary style that is frontal and neutral. Rather than the kind of nostalgic approach often brought to bear on a city’s landmarks and typical sites, this ensemble offers an exploration of the nature of modernity and focuses on the ways in which the past and future are temporarily linked together. Seeking to reinvent the forms and functions of photography in relation to the practice of documentary, Abbott sets out to capture the “disappearance of the moment” by juxtaposing motifs from a city subject to an unprecedented process of demolition and reconstruction.

In 1938, hoping to take advantage of the fifty million visitors expected at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, the publisher, E.P. Dutton, offered to bring out a selection of one hundred images from the project accompanied by a text by the renowned art critic Elizabeth McCausland, who also happened to be Abbott’s companion and staunch supporter. Going against the women’s original ideas for an art book, Dutton produced a more standard tourist guide, breaking the City down into a series of tours, from south to north and from the centre outwards. The text, too, was shorn of its poetic and pedagogical dimensions, leaving only informative entries about the buildings in the pictures.

In the exhibition, this set of architectural photographs is rounded out by a selection of pictures of vernacular architecture taken by Abbott during a journey in the southern states of the US in the 1930s and when she was travelling along Route 1 in the 1950s. Here, portraits of farmers and wooden houses alternate with pictures of streets and local events.

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Triborough Bridge, East 125th Street Approach, New York City, June 29, 1937'

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Triborough Bridge, East 125th Street Approach, New York City, June 29, 1937
1937
Gelatin silver print
24.5 x 19cm
Museum of the City of New York. Gift of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Broadway to the Battery, New York City, May 4, 1938' 1938

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Broadway to the Battery, New York City, May 4, 1938
1938 
Gelatin silver print
17.5 x 24cm
Museum of the City of New York
Museum Purchase with funds from the Mrs. Elon Hooker Acquisition Fund
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Flat Iron Building, Broadway and Fifth Avenue, New York City' 1938

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Flat Iron Building, Broadway and Fifth Avenue, New York City
1938
Gelatin silver print
101.5 x 76 cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

 

Berenice Abbott Petit Journal

With over 120 photographs, plus a selection of books and documents never shown before, this is the first exhibition in France to cover the many different facets of the American photographer Berenice Abbott (1898-1991), who is also famous for her international advocacy of Eugène Atget. She came to Paris in 1921 where she learnt her craft from Man Ray before opening her own studio and embarking on a successful career as a portraitist. Returning to New York City in 1929, she conceived what remains her best‑known project, Changing New York (1935-39). This was financed by the Works Progress Administration as part of its response to the economic crisis sweeping the country. The photographs she took in 1954 when travelling along the US East Coast on Route 1 (the exhibition presents a previously unseen selection of these images) reflect her ambition to represent the whole of what she called the “American scene.” Furthermore, in the 1950s, she also worked on a set of images for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) designed to illustrate the principles of mechanics and light for educational purposes.

A committed member of the avant‑garde from the early 1920s, and a staunch opponent of Pictorialism and the school of Alfred Stieglitz, Abbott spent the whole of her career exploring the limits and nature of documentary photography and photographic realism. This exhibition shows the rich array of her interests and conveys both the unity and diversity of her work.

 

Portraits

Berenice Abbott moved to New York City in the early 1920s and went about becoming a sculptor. Mixing in the bohemian circles of Greenwich Village, she met writers and artists such as Djuna Barnes, Sadakichi Hartmann and Marcel Duchamp. She also posed for Man Ray. Economic hardship at home and the allure of what then seemed the cultural Eldorado of Europe impelled several of these artists to try their luck in Paris, and Abbott herself joined this group of American expatriates in 1921.

In 1923 she became the assistant of Man Ray, who had opened a portrait studio shortly after his arrival in France in 1921. While a fair portion of the studio’s clients were American tourists, Abbott found herself at the heart of the avant-garde scene – especially that of the Surrealists. Between 1923 and 1926 she thus learnt about darkroom techniques and portrait photography while at the same time picking up a broader intellectual and artistic education. She produced her portraits in Man Ray’s studio before opening her own in 1926. Success soon followed. Her clientele was a mixture of French cultural figures and American expatriates, of bourgeois, bohemians and literary types. Her portraits were on occasion manifestly influenced by Surrealism, and more generally show an interest in masquerade, play and disguise, but sometimes even in their use of overprinting and distortion.

The female models express a kind of sexual ambiguity, notably by their masculine haircut or clothes, deliberately exuding a sense of uncertainty with regard to their identity. In composing her portraits, Abbott developed a distinctive aesthetic, far removed from the usual commercial conventions. The absence of a set, with the background usually no more than a plain wall, helped to focus on the sitter and their posture, the position of their body and their facial expression. The use of a tripod and long-focus lenses placed at eye-height allowed her to avoid distortions and thus heighten the physical presence of the models. In early 1929 Abbott left Paris for New York City. Back in America she continued with the same activities, opening a new portrait studio and taking part in exhibitions of modernist photography, while also promoting the work of Eugène Atget, having bought part of his estate in 1928.

 

New York City

In the early 1930s, Abbott set about her project for a great documentary portrait of the City of New York, but had no luck when she approached institutions such as the Museum of the City of New York and the New York Historical Society for funding. She assembled her first efforts in an album (eight pages of which are exhibited here) in order to convey the scale of her ambitious undertaking, and in 1934 exhibited her photographs of the City at the Museum of the City of New York in the hope of attracting sponsors. In 1935, support was at last forthcoming from the Federal Art Project, a programme set up to aid artists by the Works Progress Administration as part of the New Deal; she now had the support of a team of researchers who produced an information pack with text and drawings to accompany each image. Entitled Changing New York, she conceived this commission as both a vast documentary record of the City and a personal work of art. Eighty of the 305 photographs constituting this project have been selected for the exhibition. These are accompanied by documents – a poster, exhibition views, sketches and historical notes, proofs, pages from the preparatory album and original editions – that help to convey the concerns and ambitions behind this major photographic undertaking.

Abbott focused on the contrasts and links between old and new in the City’s structure. Her images alternate between a New Vision aesthetic, characterised by an emphasis on details and bold perspectives, and a more documentary style that is frontal and neutral. Rather than the kind of nostalgic approach often brought to bear on a city’s landmarks and typical sites, this ensemble offers an exploration of the nature of modernity and focuses on the ways in which the past and future are temporarily linked together. Seeking to reinvent the forms and functions of photography in relation to the practice of documentary, Abbott sets out to capture the “vanishing instant” by juxtaposing motifs from a city subject to an unprecedented process of demolition and reconstruction.

The upshot of all this work was the publication of a book, Changing New York, in 1939. But there was considerable tension between the publisher, whose concerns were commercial, and the photographer, with her artistic ambitions. In 1938, hoping to take advantage of the fifty million visitors expected at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, the publishing house E.P. Dutton proposed to bring out a selection of one hundred images from the project accompanied by a text from the renowned art critic Elizabeth McCausland, who also happened to be Abbott’s companion and unfailing supporter. Straying far from the project originally envisaged by the two women, Dutton changed the presentation of the photographs and produced what was a standard tourist guide, breaking the City down into a series of tours, from south to north and from the centre outwards. The text, too, was shorn of its poetic and pedagogical dimensions, leaving only information about the buildings in the pictures.

 

The “American scene”

This set of architectural images is completed by a selection of vernacular photographs. In the summer of 1935, Berenice Abbott went on a road trip down to the Southern US in order to create a portrait of a rural world in crisis. Choosing the kind of documentary style that would be the hallmark of the photographic survey launched by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) that same year, she focused on the modest wooden houses and the farmers. Driving around these states with Elizabeth McCausland, Abbott took some two hundred photographs which the two women saw as part of an ambitious photographic portrait of America in book form, although in the end this was never published. A similar fate befell Abbott’s piece on the small towns and villages along Route 1, which she travelled in 1954. Covering approximately 6,500  kilometres as she followed this road along the East Coast of the US, she took some 2,400 photographs, taking in stalls, shops, portraits of farmers, diners and bars and dance halls. Her photography alternated between the documentary aesthetic and Street Photography. With Route 1, Abbott continued to pursue her ambition of representing the whole of the “American scene.”

 

Science

Abbott started photographing scientific phenomena in 1939. In 1944 she was recruited by the journal Science Illustrated, where she published some of her own pictures, as head of its photography department. Abbott took a committed, pedagogical approach, seeing her images as a vital bridge between modern science and the general public. In 1957, as a result of the anxiety about national science stirred by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik into outer space, at the height of the Cold War, the National Science Foundation set up a Physical Science Study Committee at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Its role was to develop new textbooks for the teaching of science in schools and to use innovative photographs to illustrate the principles of quantum mechanics. Abbott was hired by MIT to produce photographs for the popularisation and teaching of the sciences. Using abstract forms to visually express complex mechanical concepts and invisible mechanical laws, she used black grounds to reveal principles such as gravity and light waves. The exhibition features a score of Abbott’s scientific and experimental images, as well as some of the books for which they were used. Harking back to the experiments of the avant-gardes, and in particular the Rayogram technique, she was able to produce visually attractive and surprising images that were also rich in discovery, thus combining documentary information with a sense of wonder.”

Text by Gaëlle Morel, curator of the exhibition, on the Jeu de Paume website

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, New York City, October 24, 1935' 1935

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Blossom Restaurant, 103 Bowery, New York City, October 24, 1935
1935
Gelatin silver print
19 x 24.5cm
Museum of the City of New York
Gift of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Sunoco Station, Trenton, New Jersey' 1954

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Sunoco Station, Trenton, New Jersey
1954
Gelatin silver print
19 x 24.5cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Gunsmith and Police Department Headquarters, 6 Centre Market Place and 240 Centre Street, New York City, February 4, 1937' 1937

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Gunsmith and Police Department Headquarters, 6 Centre Market Place and 240 Centre Street, New York City, February 4, 1937
1937 
Gelatin silver print
19 x 24.5cm
Museum of the City of New York
Gift of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Happy's Refreshment Stand, Daytona Beach, Florida' 1954

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Happy’s Refreshment Stand, Daytona Beach, Florida
1954
Gelatin silver print
29.5 x 28cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

Berenice Abbott. 'Miner, Greenview, West Virginia' 1935

 

Berenice Abbott (American, 1898-1991)
Miner, Greenview, West Virginia
1935
Gelatin silver print
25 x 19 cm
Ronald Kurtz / Commerce Graphics
© Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd, Inc.

 

 

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28
Nov
10

Exhibition: ‘László Moholy-Nagy – Art of Light’ at Martin Gropius-Bau, Berlin

Exhibition dates: 4th November 2010 – 16th January 2011

 

László Moholy-Nagy. 'Am 7 (26)' 1926

 

László Moholy-Nagy (Hungarian, 1895-1946)
Am 7 (26)
1926
Oil on canvas
75.8 x 96 cm
Ernst und Kurt Schwitters Stiftung/ Sprengel Museum, Hannover
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010

 

 

My apologies for the paucity of reviews of local exhibitions on the blog recently. It’s not that I haven’t been going to exhibitions far from it, just that nothing has really struck me as worthy of an in depth review!

Recently I went to the new Monash University Gallery of Art (MUMA) and the opening exhibition of the gallery, CHANGE (until 18th December). This is a hotchpotch of an exhibition that showcases the “breadth and depth of the Monash University Collection, reflecting on the changing forms, circumstances and developments in contemporary art practice from the 1960s to the present day – from late modernism to our contemporary situation … the exhibition signals the potential for institutional change that MUMA’s new situation represents.” Avowing an appeal to the senses the exhibition has some interesting works, notably a large canvas by Howard Arkley, Family home – suburban exterior 1993, Daniel von Sturmer’s installation The Field Equation (2006), Mike Parr’s bloody, mesmeric performance Close the Concentration Camps (2002) that you just can’t take your eyes off and part of Tracey Moffatt’s haunting series Up In The Sky (1998), the “part” declamation leaving one unable to decipher the narrative of the work without seeing the whole series on the Roslyn Oxley9 website. This is symptomatic of the whole exhibition – somehow it doesn’t come together, one of the problems of large, non-thematically organised group exhibitions.

The spaces of the new gallery are interesting to wander through but seem a little pokey and confined. A series of smallish intersecting rooms to the left hand side of the gallery leads one around to a big gallery to the right hand side (the best space), before another small front room. Down the spine runs a narrow enclosed area with exposed trusses and ducts that is unimaginative in design and redundant as an exhibiting space. Overall the gallery feels claustrophobic being an almost hermetically sealed environment enclosed by several sliding glass doors at entry points (and yes, I do know that a gallery has to have regulated temperature, light and humidity). This is at odds with the idea of exhibiting fresh, exciting art that breathes life.

I also ventured to Anna Pappas Gallery to see the exhibition of photographic work Endless Days by Vin Ryan (until 23rd December). Nice idea but a disappointment. Featuring grided, colour-coded photographs of the physical artefacts used to plate 20 meals eaten by the Ryan family the information within the prints is almost indecipherable, the selection of plates, cups and objects so small as to become mere colour decoration. I struggled to see what the objects actually were; even in the 5 individual prints of a meal the definition of the objects was weak, the printing not up to standard. The moral of the story is this: if you are going to use the photographic medium for artwork make sure that a/ you know how to construct an image visually using the medium and b/ that you get someone who knows what they are doing to print the photographs for you if you can’t print them well yourself.

On to better things. In this posting there are some outstanding photographs: the imaginative camera angles of Moholy-Nagy (heavily influenced by Constructivism and Suprematism) where truly ground-breaking at the time. The iconic From the radio tower, Berlin (1928) is simply breathtaking in the photographs ability to flatten the pictorial landscape into abstract shape and form.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

.
Many thankx to Martin Gropius-Bau, Berlin for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

László Moholy-Nagy. 'Eton. Eleves watching cricket from the pavilion on Agar’s Plough' c. 1930

 

László Moholy-Nagy (Hungarian, 1895-1946)
Eton. Eleves watching cricket from the pavilion on Agar’s Plough
c. 1930
Gelatin silver print
15.7 x 20.7 cm / 16.3 x 21.3 cm
Achat 1994. Centre Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne / Centre de création industrielle
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010

 

László Moholy-Nagy. 'Photogram' c. 1938

 

László Moholy-Nagy (Hungarian, 1895-1946)
Photogram
c. 1938
Original photogram from Chicago
204 x 252 cm
Swiss Foundation of Photography, Winterthur
Donation in memoriam S. and Giedion Welcker
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010

 

László Moholy-Nagy. 'Untitled' 1940’s

 

László Moholy-Nagy (Hungarian, 1895-1946)
Untitled
1940’s
Fujicolor crystal archive print
27.9 x 35.6 cm / 52.1 x 63.5 cm
Courtesy László Moholy-Nagy Estate and Andrea Rosen Gallery Inc., New York
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010

 

 

For Moholy-Nagy was always a theoretician and practitioner in equal measure, always wanting to be a holistic artist. He approached his work – painting, photography, commercial and industrial design, film, sculpture, scenography – from a wide variety of aspects and practised it as a radical, extreme experiment, by refusing to place his hugely differing works in any sort of aesthetic hierarchy. He also attached enormous importance to education, which is why, at the request of Walter Gropius, he worked in this field for the Bauhaus in Weimar (1923-1925) and Dessau (1925-1928). In Chicago, where he settled in 1937, he again assumed teaching duties and founded the “New Bauhaus”, which sought to realise the programmes of the German Bauhaus in the United States. Shortly afterwards he founded the Institute of Design in Chicago, where he was to remain active until his death in 1946. The institute was later incorporated in the Illinois Institute of Technology, which offers study courses to this day.

From Weimar to Chicago Moholy-Nagy retained his faith in his pedagogical ideal, which for him meant not only teaching, but the moral education of human beings. He believed in education as a means of developing all the abilities lying dormant in the students and as a means of paving the way to a “new, total human being.”

All of Moholy-Nagy’s theoretical contributions arose out of his artistic and pedagogical work. In his numerous writings he gradually presented his ideas, thus developing a complete artistic and pedagogical aesthetic. In his 1925 landmark essay “Painting, Photography, Film” he developed an aesthetic theory of light – light as a matrix of art and art as light. He applied his aesthetic theory of light not only to painting, photography and film, but also to theatrical and commercial design.

From that point on light became the foundation of Moholy-Nagy’s practical and theoretical work. For him art of whatever kind only acquired meaning when it reflected light. Painting was also reinterpreted on the basis of this criterion. Moholy-Nagy described his development as a painter as a shift away from “painting from transparency” to a painting that was free of any representational constraints and created the possibility of painting “not with colours, but with light.” This theory reached its full potential in photography and film. Etymologically, the word “photography” means “writing with light.” The artistic essence of film consists in the portrayal of “inter-related movements as revealed by light projections.” Although he was not in charge of the photography classes in the Bauhaus, it was there that he wrote Painting, Photography, Film, drawing upon his photographic experience. He invented the “photogram,” a purely light-based form of graphic representation, thus demonstrating an ability to create photographic images without a camera at the same time as the “Rayogram” was invented by Man Ray in Paris. He saw photography as a completely autonomous medium whose potential was still to be discovered. He criticised “pictoriality,” propagating an innovative, creative and productive photography. He regarded seriality as one of the main features of the practice of photography and opposed the “aura” of the one-off work in contrast to the infinite multifariousness of the photographic cliché, thus anticipating one of Walter Benjamin’s theses.

The distinction between production and reproduction is a basic theme of his art. A prominent aspect of every work is its ability to integrate the unknown. Works that only repeat or reproduce familiar relationships, are described as “reproductive,” while those that create or produce new relationships are “productive.” For Moholy-Nagy the ability of a work of art to create something new (a basic feature of Modernism) is a key criterion. He postulated for painting, photography and film a moral and aesthetic imperative – the New. Art had to confront new times and an industrial civilisation. In the systematic implementation of this thesis 1926 turned out to be the year in which his pictorial output was greater than his works in other fields, but 1927 witnessed a positive flood of photographic, scenographic, kinetic and film productions. Painting was something he never abandoned. He decided to drop the representational painting inherited from the past and to devote himself to non-representational or “pure” painting instead. The emergence of photography gave painting the perfect opportunity to free itself from all figurative or representative imperatives. Artists did not have to decide in favour of one medium or another, but should use all media to capture and master an optical creation.

Text from the Martin Gropius-Bau website [Online] Cited 26/11/2010 no longer available online

 

László Moholy-Nagy. 'Oscar Schlemmer in Ascona' 1926

 

László Moholy-Nagy (Hungarian, 1895-1946)
Oskar Schlemmer in Ascona
1926
Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Tokio
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010

 

László Moholy-Nagy. 'Pneumatik' 1924

 

László Moholy-Nagy (Hungarian, 1895-1946)
Pneumatik
1924
Collection E. Zyablov, Moskau
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010

 

László Moholy-Nagy. 'Flower' c. 1925-27

 

László Moholy-Nagy (Hungarian, 1895-1946)
Flower
c. 1925-27
Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musée national d’art moderne / Centre de création industrielle
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010

 

László Moholy-Nagy. 'From the radio tower, Berlin' 1928

 

László Moholy-Nagy (Hungarian, 1895-1946)
From the radio tower, Berlin
1928
Gelatin silver print
28 x 21.3 cm
Private collection
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010

 

László Moholy-Nagy. 'Lago Maggiore, Ascona, Switzerland' c. 1930

 

László Moholy-Nagy (Hungarian, 1895-1946)
Lago Maggiore, Ascona, Switzerland
c. 1930
Gelatin silver print
20.8 x 28.4 cm
Collection Spaarnestad Photo/Nationaal Archief
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010

 

László Moholy-Nagy / Paul Hartland. 'Carnival: Composition with two masks'
 c. 1934


 

László Moholy-Nagy (Hungarian, 1895-1946) / Paul Hartland
Carnival: Composition with two masks
c. 1934
Gemeentemuseum Den Haag
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2010

 

 

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Dogs, chickens, cattle’ 1994-95

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