March 12: Botanical

Date #12March 12: Apparently simple, photograms are still evolving and presenting new possibilities, even after 180 years.

This is demonstrable. Antipodean emanations: cameraless photographs from Australia and New Zealand, curated by Stella Loftus-Hills and continuing at Monash Gallery of Art (MGA) 860 Ferntree Gully Rd, Wheelers Hill, Victoria 3150 until 27 May includes several photograms with a botanical subject; a uniting theme I would like to consider here, also apparent as a fascination in exhibitor Lloyd Godman‘s career about which I have recently written.

One made 100 years into this era of the photogram is by Olive Cotton (1911–2003), another 10 years later is by prominent New Zealander Len Lye (1901–1980), while Susan Purdy (*1957) often incorporates a vegetable theme, and it can be discerned in 2007 images by Chantal Faust (*1980) while Ruth Maddison (*1945) and Anne Noble (*1954) contribute full-blown and floral examples.

Of course the photogram depicting this subject matter begins with Anna Atkins (1799-1871), who puts the lie to claims by Man Ray (1890–1976) to have invented of the ‘Rayogram’, and by Walter Serner (1889–1942) for Christian Schad‘s (1894–1982) ‘Schadowgraph’. Furthermore, just as Ray and Schad were ‘reinventing’ it for themselves, simultaneously in the 1920s three Russian artists Mikhail Tarkhanov, with El Lissitzky (1890–1941) and Georgii Zimin (1900–1985) were also making experimental photograms. Tarkhanov, who died on this date in 1962, thus was producing photograms in the middle of the period since their first appearance. An avant-garde graphic artist known for his abstract, water-based textured compositions, he was also a creative photographer.

Mikhail Tarkhanov
Mikhail Tarkhanov (1920s) photogram

Tarkhanov (not to be confused with the Russian stage and film actor of the same name) graduated with an M.A. in Applied and Decorative Arts in 1915, later enrolling at VKhUTEMAS, the famous school of Russian Avant-garde art, where studied with Futurists David Davidovich Burliuk and Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky and other artists who soon became prominent in the Russian avant-garde.

His training in photography was a result of his service in the Russian Army in Tzaritzin on the Volga river in 1916 as an artist-topographer. Wounded, hospitalized and released, he came back to Moscow in April 1918 where he became a member of the SDPIKhP (“Union of Applied Art and Art Industry Activists”). He served there as a secretary of the Graphics and Publishing Department. In 1919 he worked as a manager of the “Soviet Art Workshop” in Sokolniki, Moscow. The same year he became a Director of the “Industrial Exhibition No.7”.

After further military service 1919-1921, he became a draftsman at the Moscow District Military-Engineering Committee while also picking up his studies at VKhUTEMAS once more, from 1921 through 1927, under such prominent Russian Avant-garde artists as Vasili (Wassily) Kandinsky, Vladimir Favorsky, and Nikolay Kupreyanov. From 1919 to 1931 he exhibited with such prominent avant-garde artists as Natan Altman, El Lissitzky, Kazimir MalevichAlexander Rodchenko, Gustav Klutsis, Vladimir Lebedev, Lyubov Popova and others. He became widely known for his children’s book designs and graphic art.

In these images we see Tarkhanov experimenting simultaneously with painting and photography to pursue an interest in repetition and pattern. The painting is made in a technique using a paste of starch and pigment, wiping it back with a shaped scraper starting from the top of the design so that the forms overlap to represent the serried heads of rushes nodding in the wind. A similar patterning is followed in his simple photogram of maple tree seeds in which the veined transparency of their membranous ‘wing-tips’ echoes the scraper-board markings in the painting. Grass seeds overlap in the design below to assemble into the shape of a swallow.

circa 1920 silver print 11 x 17 cm
Mikhail Tarkhanov (c.1920) untitled silver gelatin print 11 x 17 cm

His pairing of images, as seen in the series below, indicates his interest in the photogram for design appropriate for book layouts.

10 botanical photograms
10 botanical photograms

The pair in which he has lain oak leaves on the paper is symmetrical, painstakingly so since these are not an original with a copy, but are separately made by repeating the placement of the leaves (as can be made out in the very slightly different overlap of the two larger leaves). Tarkhanov’s fastidious arrangements belie their simple appearance and evince a design intention as conscientious as Anna Atkins’ scientific taxonomic series. These are much more than the typical novice photogramer’s lackadaisical scattering, as they relate closely to, and contribute to, his efforts toward abstraction in his painting.

H3884-L131689381The official status of Socialist Realism from 1932/1933 until his death prohibited Tarkhanov from openly exhibiting any of his abstractions, so he secretly pursued his abstract work while working officially for various Soviet institutions. Much of his oeuvre has remained unseen until the present. Tarkhanov’s works are included in the permanent collections of the Tretyakov Gallery, the Russian Museum, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, and at the Getty Center.

Olive Cotton (c1935) untitled, chrysanthemums with water spray.

Olive Cotton was an Australian modernist photographer associated with Max Dupain who is also featured in this show. Even in her commercial work she was experimental, though only two photograms by her including the one above are extant. This image from the decade after Tarkhanov’s is made by exposing the photographic paper to a shallow-focus negative of water droplets on the needle-like leaves of a sheoak (the ‘water-spray’) but printed much more heavily than a ‘correct’ exposure in order to create a solid black for the chrysanthemums, hypo crystals and leaves placed directly on the paper. Her arrangement is pictorial rather than abstract and conveys a verdantly festive quality.

Celebrated New Zealand poet, artist and experimental filmmaker Len Lye in the next decade confidently handles the genre in his tribute to Georgia O’Keefe (1887–1986). She was lover and then wife of artist/gallerist Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) who had died the year before Lye made his photogram. During the 1940s O’Keeffe had come to wide attention with two one-woman retrospectives, at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1943, and in 1946,  when she was the first woman artist to be recognised with such a survey at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and in the meantime her work was being catalogued by the Whitney Museum of American Art.

From 1944 to his death in 1980 Lye was based in New York where he directed for the March of Time series for a living while pursuing a variety of personal film projects. As he had already experimented there with camera-less photography in the 20s and 30s, he progressed to make photogram portraits of people he knew and admired, including Joan Miró, Hans Richter, scientist Nina Bull, W. H. Auden, jazz musician Baby Dodds, Le Corbusier, his wife Ann (below, whose necklace becomes a crown), a plumber called Albert Bishop who came to do repairs, and a self-portrait.

Len Lye (1947) Anne Lye. Photogram – gelatin silver print, 405 x 335mm

Photography historian and theorist Geoffrey Batchen (*1956), who teaches the history of photography at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, curated the first manifestation of this exhibition at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre in 2016 in New Zealand. He spoke at MGA’s symposium No cameras allowed on Sunday 11 March 2018 and has remarked that Lye “was a happening kind of guy” who attracted significant friends. The filmmaker was intrigued by the idea of people leaving a direct trace; his poem t w i expresses Lye’s theories of self-realisation and individuality.

From ‘t w i’
why would writ (y) ing should I

we when word say sign not
it its is me world its
my give is its split
world me the things:
nor fuss of pen froth
alphabet pen pattern nor
pin tin type bit
but bone soil twang fibre
not hammered groove star fly
sperm man alpha whale ink
but I
my word my world Lye
is my sieve

Amongst his subjects was Georgia O’Keefe, who like the others was persuaded to lie down and place their faces on a sheet of photographic paper in a small darkened room while he flicked the light on and off. O’Keefe held the deer antler she had brought to the Lyes as a present. The result was a negative that when trimmed formed the basis for a second printing which renders O’Keefe’s head and the antler as positive, black shadows. Lye used the antler outline as a border for a template to cover the profile already exposed as to the right when he printed in a solid black in which twine the white leaves of a creeper.

It is a suitably eloquent tribute to the elegant artist and to her paintings full of the strenuous forms of desert plants and the sensuous interiors of flowers. Lye’s photogram is recognisably in the spirit of the ‘biomorphic 40s’ in American painting during the emergence of Abstract Expressionism.

Lye_Len_Georgia O'Keefe_1947
Len Lye (1947) Georgia O’Keefe.
Ruth Maddison (2003) Girt by Sea #4  gelatin silver print 60.8 x 144.2 cm

Self-taught photographer Ruth Maddison began working as a professional in 1976, and has been regularly exhibiting her work since 1979. Best known for her warm-hearted, hand-coloured portraits of the 70s, she is an ever-inventive and fun-loving artist (just follow her on Instagram).

In making photograms of aquatic plant life at her home in seaside Eden, New South Wales, Maddison harks back to Anna Atkins who was using the cyanotype process for her 1843 Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, which was the first book illustrated with photographic images. Maddison, like Atkins, is placing her seaweeds directly on the photographic emulsion in broad daylight, though she uses silver bromide paper. The lengthy solar exposure blackens the silver halide, much as Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1977) was first doing in his talbottype process, without development. The prints are then washed and fixed.

The physical act of hauling the seaweeds out of the buoying sea water and laying them on large sheets of paper (Girt by Sea #4 is 60.8 x 144.2 cm) can actually be traced in the image; they spread and flatten, and where in closest contact with the paper their saltiness reacts with the emulsion, leaving it less sensitive, and we are able to see where the plants cling to the tacky chemical surface. The result is a Jabberwock, writhing in the “slithy toves [that] Did gyre and gimble in the wabe…’.

02_FILM_NEG_04_NOBLE 001
Anne Noble (2017) Bruissement 4

It is no stretch to associate bees with the botanical world of flowers, foliage and fruit, and New Zealand multimedia artist Anne Noble is a beekeeper herself. When in the United States on a Fulbright she encountered first hand the impact of pesticides that is weakening bees’ resistance to parasites, pathogens and pests, thus threatening agriculture through the loss of crucial pollinators.

Her ingenious reaction was to collect the dead bees and to pluck their now stilled, transparent wings. Rolling them inside strips of colour film, Noble held them briefly to the light so that it passed through her fingers and into the recesses of the wound roll. Cross-lit, the wings stand out in such relief and finesse in these massive prints as to make it difficult to comprehend that no lens is forming the image.

Petal-like and illumined by rays stained red and blue, it seems the wings are transfigured, once again taking flight, blown on the winds but bereft of the bustling bodies they once bore up. Hers is a poetic evocation but also an urgent response to what is a world crisis in agriculture; “what is happening to the bees we are likely doing to ourselves,” she warns, urging artists

to ask some parallel but different questions that draw on our sensory and imaginative capacity to fully comprehend the impact of human action on natural biological systems.

Missing from this show, for my purposes, are the many garden and bushland images of an Australian veteran of the photogram, Susan Purdy. What we have instead of works from New Branches on an Old Tree (2004-6), The Lost Forest (2009) or Understory (2016), are two photograms from her powerful series Love Letters. From an artist who probably more than any of the others has contemplated the nature of the photogram and who makes exquisitely-wrought, usually pictorial, rather than abstract, examples, one picture in particular intrigues me. Luckily the grapes decorating the wine glasses Purdy has used here keep us to the uniting theme for this post.

Susan Purdy (1999) Flip from the series Love letters, gelatin silver print with ink, 66.0 x 44.0 cm

Other versions exist, but being photograms they are not copies; you can see they differ as the objects have been reused to make other prints, from the artist’s blog The Burning Inn (left) and in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria (right), and from these we get a better idea of the arrangement and construction of the photogram.

One glass is tilted inside the other so that it balances in place..or are they both lying down on the paper and their rims set against each other? It is hard to determine with the photogram because as Purdy says;

My discovery…is that by recording the shadows of transparent objects, I am able to insert dimension into previously dense silhouettes…In these works is a place where there is no horizon. This location is an under/inner world.

So we are left to puzzle, how is it that one glass, particularly in the MGA version on show, displays its base as a full circle like that in a cubist painting of a glass, defying perspective, while the other is seen obliquely? In my efforts to comprehend, I’ve dropped her picture into Photoshop to invert black and white;

Flip Flipped
Flip inverted and ‘flipped’
Susan Purdy (1999) Flip from the series Love letters, gelatin silver print with ink, 66.0 x 44.0 cm

But it’s still mind-boggling, isn’t it? So let’s revert to the original…it seems to me that the image was made with the glasses reclining against each other, but has the edge of one end of the sheet of photographic paper been lifted so that it touches the base of one glass? Has light been projected obliquely onto the subjects? Has the print been turned ‘upside-down’?

Only your own experiments in the darkroom will solve the conundrum of these uncannily acrobatic glasses. And that is the challenge, and the delight, of photogram-making.

Purdy likes a pun, as anyone in-the-know about darkroom printing can tell from her blog title The Burning Inn, and in Flip she indulges in a wordplay that is perceptive when applied to human relationships. We might ‘flip’ over the object of our affection, but in the end be given the flip.

In her image-play itself much more can be discovered about the nature of love. One glass tips up to empty itself into the other; the configuration becomes a reverse hourglass; the base of one glass becomes a halo while the other rests solidly on the ground. Of the three versions, which satisfies your perception of human passion, the darker or the lighter, those with glasses offset, or the one in this exhibition which is absolutely symmetrical? A visit to Purdy’s website rewards the viewer with rich permutations of the art of the photogram.

Chantal Faust (2007) Waiting

Shall we proceed then to a final puzzle? A bowl catches light so that in its vitreous depths colours splinter and shift. Only a passing resemblance to anything botanical connects this crystalline image to my theme, and yet its flowerlike brilliance and symmetry is irresistible.

Furthermore it is achieved by means quite remote from the traditional photogram. Chantal Faust regards her eyes, when in the throes of her projects, as “an ever-alert, high-resolution, portable visual field scanner.”

As a practicing scanner, I frequently input objects which are sourced from fields of abundant stock. These sites may include two-dollar shops, bargain bins, supermarkets, pet-shops, toy-shops and pharmacies. My field-scanner is entranced…

She centres here on bodily desire to “make explicit the sexualised bias of vision” particularly in the case of infantile sexuality and fixation; this work is allied to a perfomance piece in which the artist sucked milk from this bowl. What she shows us is the object containing what is desired. What we see is a flat-bed scanner’s view of it;

Within my laboratory, the final phase of the collected objects is often in the form of a photographic image that is produced using a flat-bed scanner as a camera. From field-scan to flat-bed, direct-object computer scanning allows the digital machine to provide a stamp or impression rather than a manipulated ‘photo- shopped’ image. The object is pressed against a glass plate under which a horizontal light beam slowly travels as it records what lies above. Referencing photograms, cat-scans, cartoon cels, photocopying and flat-press toasted sandwich makers, this technique can flatten and distort depending on pressure, movement and the ingredients of the object. Any surface that is directly applied to the glass plate will be completely in focus and this results in a distorted depth of field and a hyper-real surface tension of the object. The imaging process directs the gaze and distills the object by confounding scale and distorting perspective.

In an exhibition entitled cameraless photographs isn’t this to stretch the brief to breaking point? A scanner is, as Faust describes above, a camera. It has a lens, its scanning action is its shutter and early large format digital backs operated like scanners. But in the digital age of imaging, the scanner perpetuates, transmutes, the idea of the photogram and its intimate contact with the object. Isn’t this is as close as you get, with pixels, to the photogram? Isn’t this a legitimate provocation on the part of an artist/theorist, whose essays include Looking out of Place and Shadow Play? And isn’t it the duty of curator Stella Loftus-Hills to choose such works that tease; to tease out questions that will define ‘Emanations’ in the name of this exhibition?


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