The usefulness of photography for making catalogues was noticed as early as 1844. Henry Fox Talbot, in his The Pencil of Nature, remarked of his illustration “Articles Of China” that “however numerous the objects — however complicated the arrangement — the Camera depicts them all at once”…
“From the specimen here given it is sufficiently manifest, that the whole cabinet of a Virtuoso and collector of old China might be depicted on paper in little more time than it would take him to make a written inventory describing it in the usual way…and should a thief afterwards purloin the treasures — if the mute testimony of the picture were to be produced against him in court — it would certainly be evidence of a novel kind…”
The term “inventory,” as Fox Talbot notes, is apt in his case. With ‘invention,’ the 15th century English word inventory shares its origin in the Latin verb invenire, from in- into + venire come. The medium of Talbot’s invention contributed the means to record objects and reproduce them in unlimited prints from negatives, unlike the French innovation of the Daguerreotype which made one-off, unique image plates.
The term is also applicable to exhibitions discussed here. It would take me some time to make an inventory of this year’s offerings of the Head On Photo Festival 2021 in Sydney which finishes today. I have not been able to make the 900km trip to see it, but its website boasts “a jam-packed online program and spectacular outdoor locations across Sydney…exhibitions from over 700 contributing artists…workshops, panel discussions, artist talks…,” aside from its rich and well-known Portrait Award, to which have been added in recent years Landscape, and Student, Awards.
I admit to having been somewhat dismissive here of that genre of photography, a form of inventory, known as the ‘typology’. Its rigorous application in collaborations of the German couple Bernd and Hilla Becher who produced series of photographs of particular types of industrial structure – Anonymous Sculptures – which they often presented in grid formations, is unmatched by those numerous imitators whose productions are merely monotonous repetitions.
While Sean O’Hagan of The Guardian might say that “the Bechers approached photography the way a botanist might approach the cataloguing of flora and fauna,” they achieved that balance of variation and similarity to which the Bechers, having trained in typography and graphic design at the Staatlichen Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf, were sensitive through their selection and manipulation of fonts and layouts
While they do not follow to the letter the model of typology, there are Head On exhibitions which the idea of the inventory can illuminate.
One might loosely categorise people without clothes as a type, with sub-classifications, as identified in Jason Fulford‘s recently released Aperture book Photo No Nos, of the “Nude as Arte”, “Nude Self-Portraits”, “Nudes in Nature”, and “Nudes of Ex-Girlfriends,” and some of these, and others, are indeed grouped in a show at the Festival, where there are “Nudes on Tap,” which is the title of one at TAP (“The Artists’ Paradise”) artist-run gallery 259 Riley St. Surry Hills. A group show, the self-awareness of the photographers varies, though a few approach an often hackneyed subject with a healthy sense of irony, including French/Australian Marie Brokensha, below, in which one nude woman photographs another, though the picture being taken, if one judges from the length of the lens, is a portrait, not a nude.
That the erotic is entangled with this aesthetic which mixes sexual arousal into artistry, is made lubriciously apparent in John Dobson‘s Fetish, at 107 Projects, 107 Redfern St., Redfern to 28 November 2021, which catalogues varieties of sexual obsession, not limited to the photographer’s own, in restagings of famous works by pop artist Allen Jones and ‘Tom of Finland’ (Touko Valio Laaksonen), Horst P. Horst and others that you will recognise. A Melbourne expatriate, Dobson trained in graphic design Germany and the UK, working in advertising before settling on photography in Australia. A professional publicist, his lighting is bravura; blushing, hue-soused, slithering lustrously over satiny, sheeny latex, rubber and leather. These are not nudes but idealisations, all vulgar pubic hair and nipples smoothed over like Charles Robinson Sykes‘ Art Deco Spirit of Ecstasy. With other advertising professionals, Dobson’s real fetish is that elusive dominatrix, Perfection.
In a solo Naked Britain, Melbourne-born UK photographer Anastasia Trahanas pursues diversity in a project started in 2005. She recruits subjects online, seeking out “ordinary people of different shapes, sizes, colours and creeds,” those often stigmatised (in the literal sense of being ‘marked’ or deformed), conveying beauty that is more than skin-deep with images that square up to our own prejudices and preconceptions.
Showing at Paddington Reservoir Gardens, 251-255 Oxford St, is Open Wounds; portraits of his compatriots by Younes Mohammad (*1968) of Dohuk, Kurdistan, who exhibited previously at Head On in 2017. Based in Erbil, he freelances for newspapers and magazines. Despite his passion for photography, his period of exile as a refugee in Iran from 1974 to 1998 resulted in late study for an MBA at the University of Tehran, a career choice he abandoned in 2011 for photography, in which he has won frequent awards.
Consistently set on a black cloth background and tenderly lit, each subject is stoic but conveys the fierce defiance of the endless ranks of embattled Peshmerga veterans. In interview Younes regrets that…
“…the ugly and the cowardly face of war is evident in most of my works, but in a documentary and realistic way. I wished my work was able to revel in beauty and friendship but it doesn’t. I can’t right now. I am trying to document what I am witnessing in this contemporary moment, and the human behavior I witness is often more bad than good.”
Prime exemplars of the inventory photograph come from mid-century America. In the 25 Nov 1946, issue of Life magazine, in its classic photo-essay approach of using the lives of ordinary Americans to set forth complex contemporary issues, Bernard Hoffman (1913–1979) fabricates a visual narrative around a family’s adjustment to the postwar era, transported, by helicopter it seems, to a consumer dreamworld. Imagined in a new life, outside a spacious modern ranch-style home, the couple find themselves suddenly middle-class, approvingly surveying white goods being unloaded from a delivery van as if directly from the pages of a Sears Wishbook.
Harold Evans, former president of Random House Trade Group and editorial director of the New York Daily News, US News and World Report, and Atlantic Monthly explained in 1998 his selection for The American Century, from thirty thousand photographs, paintings, and cartoons, and his choice of Alex Henderson’s Czekalinski family picture from the November 19, 1951 Life magazine;
“I am drawn to Alex Henderson’s carefully posed 1951 descriptive photograph of the Du Pont worker Steve Czekalinski with his wife and two boys. They are framed amid a cornucopia of good food [ … ] that the typical American family enjoyed in the booming mid-fifties. It’s a materialistic and commercial image, and some will object to that, but the pursuit of plenty has been an American preoccupation—and the business of America is business, is it not?”
The form resurfaces a half-century later in American photographer Peter Menzel‘s and writer Faith D’Aluisio‘s project Hungry Planet, photographic surveys of everything that an average family consumes in a given week and what it costs. The pair released their book “Hungry Planet: What the World Eats” in 2005, showcasing meals in 24 countries.
Huang Qingjun (*1971) in his Head On exhibition at Bondi Beach Promenade, Queen Elizabeth Drive, Bondi Beach, takes a 21st century perspective in his series Online Shopping Family Stuff started in 2015, with a request of people in 14 homes all over China to display in a photograph everything they have ever bought online. He and the residents searched out online purchases and lined them up outside each dwelling, placing smaller and more utilitarian objects in front to create an orderly progression of scale for an overview photograph. The shoot, and putting everything back, could take up to 10 hours.
Never more relevant than now, in the era of COVID, the project reveals how pervasive — and invasive of remote cultures — is environmentally disastrous internet shopping.
Australian filmmaker and photographer David Wallin exemplifies the inventory as detritus, all that remains of his relationship with his father. Estranged by his parent’s alcoholism, he learned of his death in a city 10 hours away only when the police knocked on his door. Though it is now not an uncommon tale, Wallin is nevertheless courageous in revealing this personal story. Its main protagonist is an invisible presence in a forensic series that documents, in hindsight, a tale of remorseless loneliness, regret and futile attempts at recovery and remediation.
As I write, Head On is closing, but like me you can still experience this huge festival and its many facets remotely.