15 March: Compression

Date #15A new exhibition in Canberra warrants a brief digression into a tech backstory…

In the 1930s a new type of lens was being developed for astronomical photography; the catadioptric, which both refracted and reflected light. For telescopes, a parabolic mirror could be employed, but that had too narrow a field of view to be useful for anything other than astronomy.

Schmidt CameraThe Estonian optician Bernhard Schmidt developed a camera for astronomy with a spherical rather than parabolic mirror, thus permitting a wide-field view. Aberrations of coma and astigmatism caused by the spherically-ground reflector could be corrected with a ‘field flattener’; a lens convex at the centre and concave toward the edges, and by distorting the photographic film with clips or a vacuum holder to further correct the spherical aberration.

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Lieutenant Dmitry Dmitrievich Maksutov (1896-1964)

To make a practical photographic lens, the image had to be projected through an aperture in the mirror onto film inside a camera to which it is attached. That requires a second, smaller mirror; an aluminised ‘spot’ on the back of the corrector lens. Astronomer and optician, the Russian (they’re not all bad!) Dmitri Dmitrievich Maksutov, designed such an instrument, a telescope. That was the design of the 1954 Questar which I coveted in the New Yorker ads I saw as a teenager, its design improved by American John Gregory.

For use on cameras such ‘reflector’ lenses ‘fold’ the optical path to compact what would be a very long telephoto lens of 250mm or even 1000mm.

Though rare, the second-hand market offers hardly-used mirror lenses at a price much reduced from new because such portability is paid for with a fixed aperture of around f15, due to the central obstruction of the secondary mirror, and exposure can only be adjusted with the shutter, and by using faster film or higher ISO rating of the digital sensor. To complicate that, you need a fast shutter speed to fight camera shake because these lenses, being lighter and much shorter than the sports photographers’ hefty bazooka-sized telephoto, are prone to ‘shutter shock’.

Solid cat New photographer
1978 News Photographer magazine advertisement for the Vivitar 600mm “solid cat.” being used on a Nikon F Photomic.

In the late 70s however, for the Perkin-Elmer Corporation (whose own failure on the Hubble telescope mirror of the time was no recommendation), Vivitar developed its 600mm ‘Solid Cat’; a barrel almost full of solid glass, massive, with a ‘wide’ aperture of f8 and supposedly usable hand-held and no doubt a favourite of private investigators!

A further drawback of any mirror lens is their distinctive signature — or one might say ‘thumbprint’ — unmissable doughnut-shaped rings of out-of-focus highlights.

A photograph which serves as a textbook case of those drawbacks, camera-shake, focus issues, is this…

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…and yet, it is remarkably evocative; an optimistic poetic apparition emerging from the Sydney suburban murk of Campbelltown. A glimpse of it at the PhotoAccess site alerted me to the work of Will Broadhurst, a first-time exhibitor there, of Selected Suburban Works in their Huw Davies Gallery
until 9 April 2022.

Delicate nostalgias ripple through its vibrating granular textures…an echo of the Paul Strand picket fence resounds… but also embedded memories… it arrives at the retina with a shock of recognition; a reminder against the Ukraine invasion, of that unsettling image of a mother testing a gas-resistant pram in Huxtable, UK, as WW2 threatened in 1939.

Gasaanvalbestendige_kinderwagen_-_Gas_war_resistant_pram_(4192750051)

Broadhurst’s pram is a toy, discarded at the kerb for hard rubbish collection, a relic of someone’s childhood spent behind that picket fence.

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There is something to that nostalgic charge, those embedded memories; because Broadhurst works at Joel’s auction house in objects and collectibles, and having visited her retrospective at the Art Gallery of South Australia last year is familiar with, indeed admiring of, that other suburban artist, Clarice Beckett, one of Australia’s post-impressionist ‘misty moderns’ whose images are treated with the same steep concertinaed perspective, as if squinted though a spyglass.

Sandringham Beach, c.1933, Sandringham, Melbourne, oil on canvas, 55.8 × 50.9 cm; Purchased 1971 National Gallery of Australia
Clarice Beckett (c.1933) Sandringham Beach, oil on canvas, 55.8 × 50.9 cm; Purchased 1971 National Gallery of Australia

Bill Henson too, given his fondness for the key-hole view, is of course an influence, especially his untitled series of 1980-1982 shot at rush hours along Swanston Street in Melbourne, as well as his later, Mahlerian colour landscapes.

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Bill Henson (1980-1982 ) Untitled, from the series Untitled 1980/82. Gelatin silver print 32.6 × 37.4 cm. Iinscribed in fibre-tipped pen on reverse l.c.: ‘UNTITLED 1980/82’ BiLL HENSON / IMAGE NUMBER 4084 (4084 underlined) / PRINT NR 2 (R underlined) / Bill Henson (Henson underlined). Accession NumberPH68-1988 Australian Photography National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased from Admission Funds, 1988

Trent Parke also can not have avoided the impact of Henson’s work, but in his 2013 series The Camera Is God, shot randomly and ‘blind’, on film with a cable release, at the same street corner in Adelaide at the same time of day, every day, for nearly a year, is even more telescopic. As he points out on his Magnum page (he’s the only Australian member of the prestigious photojournalism Agency, winning the inaugural Prudential Eye Award for Photography in January 2014) that is just what is being done, clandestinely, by surveillance cameras throughout our cities.

Trent Parke
Trent Parke (2013) from The Camera is God. © Trent Parke | Magnum Photos

While Parke’s subjects are compressed claustrophobically into his frame, Broadhurst is experimental in his compositional placement of his figures, squeezed to the edge or corners, cut off in the viewfinder, or half hidden by some foreground element. Whether engaged in a Sisyphean struggle with a supermarket trolley, manipulating the gizzards of a car on a hoist, or puzzling over the crossword, they are offset, off-guard, so remote from us; and yet we empathise with them. As, from a reverie, you wake to yourself again, as your own double, to observe yourself automatically making coffee or driving the car; that is a sense that is evoked by these grainy vignettes.

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Will Broadhurst (2021/22) untitled
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Will Broadhurst (2021/22) untitled

For the most part, these are anonymous ‘everyman’ protagonists, unidentifiable because of the textural facture of the images, and so this work skirts the rocky promontory of voyerism. When asked about the danger of being interpreted as furtive, Will volunteered one incident in which he was approached by a hostile, agitated man, seemingly drug-affected, who on seeing him pass his house with his big lens and attached teleconverters, accused Broadhurst of spying on his daughter. Though frightening, that is the only negative response he has experienced.

Broadhurst nominates Patrick White, the Australian Nobel Prize-winning author, as a favourite. White’s novella The Night The Prowler is, as Andrew McCann asserts in an Australian Literary Studies, a decomposition of the suburbia that threatened to engulf the small farm at Castle Hill purchased by White in which to live with lover, Manoly Lascaris.

Castle Hill is now a suburb on the opposite side of urban Sydney 50km north of Broadhurst’s Campbelltown in the south, and of course direct correlations between White’s writing of the 1960s and these photographs made half a century later, would be as remote. It would be facile to say that the photographer is, or is anything like, White’s Prowler.  But in attempting to specify what is the poetry that I recognise in Broadhurst’s imagery, White is useful.

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Will Broadhurst (2021/22) untitled

Here the moon exerts its tidal force on dissolving fabric of the cheap lace curtains, black aluminium security door and peeling paint of this bungalow at proudly numbered 20 nowhere, unwaveringly staring down the dull flare of the porch-light.

Is its force that felt by Theodora, gradually losing her senses in The Aunt’s Story?;

“Why?” asked Theodora dully.
She had begun to suffocate.
She could feel the pressure of the red moon

…and is that of which White writes in The Eye of the Storm, about to happen here?;

The moon had revived in the wake of the storm, but rode the sky groggily. From the house the garden below appeared a muzz of frond and shadow threaded with the serpentine path. Down the path the figure of a man was tentatively advancing…

Is it alienation, like that between Stan and Amy Parker in The Tree of Man, that Broadhurst’s moon evokes?;

She walked through the trees of the piece of land that belonged to them. There was a blurry moon up, pale and watery, in the gently moving branches of the trees. Altogether there was a feeling of flux, of breeze and branch, of cloud and moon. There would be rain perhaps, she felt, in the dim, watery world in which she walked. In which their shack stood, with its unreasonably hopeful window of light. She looked through the window of this man-made hut, at her husband lying asleep on a bed. There were the pots standing on the stove. A scum from potatoes falling from the lip of a black pot. She looked at the strong body of the weak man. Her slippers were lying on their sides under a chair. She realised, with a kind of flat, open-mouthed aching detachment, that she was looking at her life. It should have been quite simple to break this dream by beating on the window. To say, Look at me, ‘Stan.

But this is not possible, it seems.

I have written of photography as vivisection, its shutter the scalpel. In The Vivisector it is the artist’s eye, arguably White’s own, that is the knife, in language so vividly and cruelly corporeal.

Broadhurst’s poetry, by contrast, expresses affection for what this lens resolves from the hazy mundanity of his suburbia. Having shot mostly with a wide-angle prior to this series, he is excited that “through distance comes clarity.”

Though this is Broadhurst’s first solo exhibition, he has practiced photography since the age of eighteen. Then working in a Hampton, Melbourne, opportunity shop, he purchased a second-hand 1966 SRT101 Minolta SLR that someone donated, and was instructed in film processing by the local camera store. He did later complete a degree in commercial photography at RMIT University but used only digital imaging. He finds film more seductive.

To compensate for the shortcomings of his Tamron 600mm lens and the degraded contrast imposed by the teleconverters used to extend it to about 1200mm, and striving for a 125th/sec shutter speed on his 1980s Nikon FM2 camera, he uses Ilford 400 Delta pushed to 3200 ISO.

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