March 24: The National Gallery of Victoria’s current photography offerings reveal the multiple new directions that the medium is taking.
Today I visited the National Gallery of Victoria for their Festival of Photography. There were shows by Australians Bill Henson, and Zoe Croggon’s Tenebrae and Ross Coulter’s Audience, and the much-vaunted 70s American photographer William Eggleston Portraits, and a selection of Australian and international artists in Contemporary Photography.
Bill Henson I have already discussed. His show fulfilled my expectations with its evocations of achingly beautiful light and neo-pictorialist portentousness. Disappointingly, the landscapes, magnificent as they were – veils of waterfall mist, the tiny bay between monumental headlands, the last of the sun striking a cypress glimpsed between clumps of dry, blonde grass – became merely suggestive in the context of the naked bodies displayed. The unpeopled images on their own could have carried the show.
A female couple sauntered through the black-painted space and loudly announced their disdain for his shots of ‘twelve-year-old girls’, though they didn’t stop to look, and really, there was nothing there to daunt the mother of inquisitive three and five year old children making her way around pushing a stroller while answering their questions. While I was there the audience spanned all generations and equally represented both male and female.
Ross Coulter‘s Audience consisted of banks of hundreds of 8 x 10 black and white prints of people pretending to look at an exhibition whilst ‘listening to a narrative’ that I understood was to direct their gaze and perhaps influence their reactions. The self-matted prints were grainy and artless (Coulter is a perfomance artist not a photographer) and it was impossible to treat seriously the idea that these audiences, comprising people mostly in their twenties to forties and of a hipster persuasion, were genuinely looking at an exhibition, only that they were knowingly being photographed as they were acting as an audience.
Their expressions were in general those of people attending a floor talk, and Coulter does make it clear elsewhere that the images represent people looking at a non-existent performance piece. That was the point of course. They look at each other across the small gallery in which the show is pinned, past the shoulders of the real NGV audience, who in general reacted with amusement.
As with all of his work, the scale and ambition of Coutler’s Audience project is laudable; he recruited 850 people to participate as audience members for photographs made in 95 gallery spaces around Melbourne. A book of the images gleaned $19152 of crowd funding from 150 supporters through Pozible last month, well exceeding his target of $14000. He says: “…in 20 years time it will be important. Really important.”
I’ll have to go back to see Zoe Croggon‘s Tenebrae in more detail having just seen what is in the corridor; formalist cut and paste collages of mostly monochrome inkjet prints in which alignments are made between forms which include segments of dancers’ bodies.
The international exhibition was varied and entertaining, and included one video piece and installations of images (rather than merely rows of works). There are too many to discuss but three sets stand out for me as comparable in an enlightening way. Each is concerned with the sky.
Australian Todd McMillan (*1979) draws on the Romantic idea of the sublime, and in his series Equivalents refers specifically to Alfred Steiglitz’ series of black and white imagery of that name produced between 1925 and 1934. McMillan chooses to use the cyanotype process which dates to the earliest days of photography, to produce images that one might mistake for full colour, but which actually renders both the sky and the clouds a monochrome blue tone.
Steiglitz ambitiously believed his photographs, each very dramatic in tonality, represented powerful emotional states and could demonstrate how…
…to hold a moment, how to record something so completely, that all who see [the picture of it] will relive an equivalent of what has been expressed.
By contrast, McMillan’s clouds are more ordinary and less varied so that ‘equivalence’ in this case fails on any emotional scale. He explains:
The cyanotype process is a 19th century photographic technique that sees a piece of paper made light sensitive. In order to expose it one places a negative beneath the glass and then holds the piece paper up to sky.
So where Steiglitz would use the sky to evoke the sublime, McMillan conceptually, and ironically, inserts a photographic process to undercut any such Romantic conceit.
Born 1945, Canadian Danny Singer‘s broad skies of the prairies dominate strings of shops and dwellings that string along the bottom of his panoramic photographs.
These are shot mainly along the 100th meridian primarily in Alberta and Saskatchewan and as far south as Texas.
Singer’s method is to take many images of each of the towns whilst passing along the main street. In each a section of the town is seen front-on with each building facade parallel to the picture plane; the process is a digital version of that used by Ed Ruscha for his famous leporello (accordion-fold book) of 1966 Every building on the Sunset Strip, and is the same effect one can achieve with the panorama function on an iPhone camera set whilst driving along a street to record the passing roadside. Singer then montages together his street images to form a seamless panorama, over which the sky is ‘pasted’, and which can be examined in detail.
In effect these pictures present sociological surveys in which we can read the town. For example, close inspection of his image of Shaunavon in southwest Saskatchewan (above) reveals several empty shops. It now has only two-thirds of its 1970s population and the average age is an elderly 47 (Melbourne’s is 28). The pattern is repeated across the other towns he photographs, evident in the minute details of shop fronts and building facades that appear to have all the permanency of the street set in a spaghetti Western.
A more sinister representation of skies is Trevor Paglen’s remote imaging of US military–industrial black sites and spy satellites. His counter-espionage sets up a devastating clash of the evidential with the aesthetic; these are gorgeous skies, but they contain a present, but nearly invisible, threat. With ‘collateral damage’ and innocent civilian deaths from US airstrikes and drone attacks mounting, Paglen’s images provide a sense of the victims’ point of view. Frustratedly we search his big prints for any sign of the drone that his titles lead us to expect to find. They are there, but they are tiny, mere specks that barely interrupt his smoothly rendered, but unnatural acid-coloured skies. By the time they are glimpsed, of course, it would be too late to avoid their indiscriminate rain of terror.
Each of these three bring evidence that we live no longer under sublime skies.