March 3: The photographer’s studio is like the TARDIS (‘Time and Relative Dimension in Space’ for those not familiar with the long-running Doctor Who television series); it’s bigger on the inside.
Our philosophical considerations here of the temporal, spatial and social transformations wrought by the background illuminate the current exhibition Fur by Australian Gerwyn Davies (*1985) at the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney.
For the catalogue of curator James B. Wyman‘s touring exhibition From the Background to the Foreground: The Photo Backdrop and Cultural Expression originating at the Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, New York October 1, 1996-March 8, 1997, Lucy Lippard (*1937) writes in her essay Frames of Mind about the use of studio backdrops;
[t]he backdrop setting presents a place in which the photograph’s subjects occupy new, often inappropriate, ‘realities.’ The illusions are myriad, but have to do primarily with class, time and place, with being lifted out of one economic reality into another, in a different historical or geographical ‘picture.’
Though Lippard is specifically referring to the illusionist painted backgrounds used by itinerate photographers in Mexico, Guatemala or Sierra Leone as derived from nineteenth-century European studio practice, she highlights this quality of the capacity for backdrops to “create a spatial dislocation into a magical elsewhere”.
This applies even where the background, a ‘continuous backdrop’, cyclorama, seamless paper or infinity curve, is blank, where it opens up the confined space of the studio by concealing it behind nothingness, creating a blind. A ‘blind’ is a camouflaged hideout used by observers or hunters of wildlife which works by making them invisible to the creatures in their sights. The backdrop, and the way the lens renders it, thus creates a ‘blind-spot’, a ‘vanishment’ that we read as infinitely void.
Helmut Newton (1920–2004) wittily demonstrates the effect by reversing the usual placement of subject, photographer and background paper. Conflicting our perception of the arrangement by including a distant urban view though an open door, like the action of a pinball he intersects the lines of sight between cameraman and model, who appears to direct her pin-up pose at the female observer, his wife June Brown (aka the artist Alice Springs). Jemima Stehli (*1961) critiques Newton’s (self-confessed) male voyeurism in her restaging in which the passive female observer steps into the shot to usurp his male, operative space.
The idea of using a background to isolate the subject came quite early. Here Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) uses a large cloth to conceal the busy background of the ivy-covered arches of the cloister at Lacock Abbey.
In 1858 Thomas Sutton (1819–1875) in John Worden’s in Larry Doherty’s A Dictionary of Photography describes the making of photographic backgrounds:
Background. In taking portraits, it is generally necessary to place a background behind the sitter. This is made by stretching a sheet of canvas, previously wetted, on a deal frame, and painting it of an appropriate colour in distemper. The canvas should be in one piece, and not less than eight feet square. When nailed on to the edges of the frame in a wet state, it contracts on drying, and becomes perfectly flat and tight. The water in which it is wetted should be strongly sized: it will then be ready for painting on, when dry.
Oil colour is objectionable, from its imparting a glaze to the surface. The colour should be perfectly dead and opaque, and of a neutral tint, made by mixing black, white, and red, in the proportion which is thought most desirable. As a general rule, the background should be a shade darker than the middle tints of the picture, but in vignetted portraits it may be a shade lighter.
A shaded background is a great improvement to a portrait when judiciously done, but it involves so much extra trouble, that few professional portraitists have attempted it, as a rule. Painted backgrounds in which peeps of distant scenery, bits of balustrade, columns, curtains, &c., are introduced, are decidedly in bad taste. A very light background is also in general an offence against good taste, particularly when the figure is very dark, and the outline hard and sharp.
Thus, in the early 1860s most photographers’ studios offered plain backgrounds, with possibly a column for the sitter to lean on, and a velvet drape on one side which could be pulled across the back to hide the base of the necessary posing stand.
When and where the use of painted scenes placed behind the photographed subject first emerged is difficult to exactly pinpoint, but in London the entrepreneurial and inventive daguerreotypist Antoine Claudet (1797-1867) patented painted backgrounds in December 1841, though his rights to the invention were never tested legally. Claudet is widely acknowledged as one of the earliest photographers to utilize painted backgrounds and scenery as in this very early 1847 portrait, with its hand tinted mountain landscape seen through a trellis.
In Claudet’s stereoscopes below demonstrating his invention the Focimeter, if you are able to free-view the 3D image, it is possible to see a softly-painted landscape convincingly distant through the window of Claudet’s elaborate set representing a Victorian parlour or study and to see the construction of the device on the small table; a set of numbered triangular ‘flags’ set along an axle oriented toward the lens.
The Focimeter was used to determine the difference between sharp focus on the camera’s ground glass and that of the developed image which was due to the displacement of the image projected by the uncorrected, achromatic lens of the type common at the time on the blue-sensitive daguerreotype. The placards on the floor indicate the focal points of the different lenses used for each shot. The camera would be focused in each case on the numeral 4 on the focimeter, but one of the lenses (above) is correctly focussed at 8 on the processed plate.
In the daguerreotype era (roughly from 1839 through the mid-1850s), including those in the United States, other portraitists made little use of representationally painted backgrounds.
The advice to photographers in 1866 in The Silver Sunbeam: A Practical and Theoretical Text-book on Sun Drawing and Photographic Printing by John Towler (1852-1882), (published by J.H. Ladd in that year) was to use a plain background, though he has this to say about painted backdrops which by then are clearly gaining acceptance;
Screens with graduated tints shading off from one colour into another, or gradually shading off from a deep to a light colour, are to be highly recommend to an artistic operator. Other screens again represent landscapes, castles, shipping, city scenery, etc. in dark colours outlines and shading, on a grey or blueish-grey foundation.
Such representations are very pleasing to the uneducated taste; the true artist sometimes seems to regard them as finical [finicky]. If such backgrounds are in true perspective, are correct representations of natural object and scenery, and can be well focussed on the ground-glass, I would not hesitate to pronounce them legitimately artistic, and as such they must enhance the value of a card-picture or other photograph.
On the contrary, if the productions are rude, faulty, and carelessly shaded, their images on the collodion-film will be equally so, and even more so, by distortion from the lenses, and will tend to communicate to the photograph a vulgar appearance.
Hand painted backdrops were generally executed on raw cotton duck using tempera paint or chalk. The cotton canvas was at times loose or put on wooden stretcher and then suspended from metal channel or wires within the portrait studio with hooks, rollers, or hinges for easy movement of the backdrop behind the props and furniture arranged for the sitter. Few backdrop painters are identified, though no doubt theatrical scene painters found work producing them, but some were made by photographers.
The well-known Henry Peach Robinson (1830-1901) trained as a painter and was accepted at age 21 into a Royal Academy Exhibition created his own backdrops using the “Faulkner Process” which was to use chalk on damp cotton canvas, and when dry the chalk was brushed to soften the image. Robinson bragged, “that a sea and rock backdrop was created in an hour.”
One portrait photographer making his own backdrops, whose collection of glass plates and prints were brought to light in 1978, was David Knights-Whittome. In this self-portrait he is seen apparently in the act.
The same sense of playfulness, with an added devilry, is at work in Gerwyn Davies current exhibition Fur at the Australian Centre for Photography. Basketball presents us with the classic instance of a fade into a background of nothingness behind his ‘star’ of the court.
Even in earlier work where the subject is placed within a completely blank white void, Davies riffs on the idea by flying a kite in it.
In each case the photographer might himself the subject of these zany portraits, but it is impossible to tell because, like the studio space in which he works he is invisible, covered as he is in novelty costumes that he delights in sewing and constructing himself from glitzy but tacky plastic from dollar shops.
There is kind of a revealing process that occurs as I work, which is in opposition to me slowly concealing myself – I enjoy the process of transformation.
Nevertheless, his signature appears in the form of glimpses of his tattooed limbs.
Where John Towler cautions that “such representations are very pleasing to the uneducated taste,” Davies takes the notion of taste for a rocket ride, caution left flapping in the slipstream. His backgrounds have all the dizzy cultural altitude of a Pixie Portrait wth Santa, but at the same time what they do with the notion of the studio is instructive. How seriously do we photographers take it as an environment in which we can do anything! Davies shows the way, assisted by the contemporary background painting medium of digital imaging and retouching, into fulsome fantasy.
He borrows shamelessly from the Australian touristic phenomenon of the ‘Big’ of which there are estimated to be over 150 around the country, including The Big Pineapple, The Big Merino, and of course The Big Prawn, and he carefully matches the lighting and atmospherics of the location shot in his studio shot into which they are montaged; convincingly but with the same degree of exaggeration.
Gerwyn Davies Fur coincides, with glorious serendipity, with the program of celebrations for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras: Forty Years of Evolution. The show presents both new and old work with big gay costumes that the artist will gradually construct on site. He is currently undertaking a PhD at UNSW Sydney and was recently awarded the Australia Council Kyoto Arts Centre Exchange for 2018.
His creations may be studio confections, but all are a toothsome delight!