One of the questions most often raised about photography as an art is of its capacity to adapt to, or to convey, individual style, or whether it merely records the subject matter in which the artist is interested.
An entree into this conundrum is through artists in other media with a recognised style who happen to use photography for artistic purpose; is the photograph such a person produces recognisably ‘theirs’ as much as are the characteristic and recognised works in their habitual medium?
A book which I would normally consult on such a question is Aaron Scharf‘s pivotal Art and Photography, but here I want to examine the works of Australians to find an answer. There are Australian painters who have used photography as a resource or to advance their work, and I will in the next few posts look at them. First, let’s consider one whose work is considered so obviously ‘photographic’; Jeffrey Smart.
His paintings are derived from observation of real places, recorded in sketches and photographs, which he studies, arranges and manipulates in his studio until resolved into a painting, and to examine Rob Palmer‘s, or others’ pictures taken in Smart’s studio makes it clear that the process is one of assemblage, not direct transcription of the image. Photographs are used as piecemeal ingredients of the ultimate work, but we can immediately see, on viewing the painting that results, that what appeals to Smart in those fragments is their trace of those littoral places, the terrain vague, the interstices of the modern world where in his work it collides with an underlying classical perfection. On the occasion of his 1999 retrospective, he remarked that the…
“…subject matter is only the hinge that opens the door, the hook on which one hooks the coat. My only concern is putting the right shapes in the right colours in the right place, it’s always geometry.”
Perhaps someone has collected photographs by Smart himself somewhere, but I have found none. After making a film Jeffrey Smart : Master of Stillness about him ten years ago, director Catherine Hunter remembers;
“Driving around the industrial areas outside Arezzo, near where Smart lives, we witnessed [a] transformation first-hand. We stopped to film the SAICO building at the behest of Smart and later gave him our photographs. Jeffrey subsequently exhibited a painting from cinematographer Bruce Inglis’ photographs.”
Smart’s rearrangement of the source material from Inglis’ camera makes clear that, even through so many photographers aspire to their work being identified as ‘like a Smart painting’, something much more formal, and less realistic than photography, happens in the paintings.
His teenage ambition was to be an architect, but instead he studied at the the Académie Montmartre under Fernand Léger so “stillness’ and “perfection” are more immediate imperatives than optical verisimilitude. Of photography he writes in his autobiography Not Quite Straight that in the case of the historic and spontaneous family sea trip ‘home’ to Britain; “the photograph album and my parents’ reminiscences have confused my memories,” thus confirming his distrust of, or uninterest in, the medium as an aide-memoire.
Furthermore, given the apparent absence of an archive Smart’s own photographs, the conclusion must be that the medium is quite incidental, in the literal sense, to his art; he would seize on any useful source material. Imposing a radical change to the image ratio, Smart’s vision of the Saico factory is more frontal and very selective in its borrowing from Inglis’ picture; the gate is given a steeper perspective but retains the tiny label below the speed sign which itself is rendered smaller and with lower contrast. The building itself is rectified, expanded to stretch across the entire elongated panorama. Workers’ figures are added but given a smaller scale than would make sense in the photograph, as are a couple of containers that complete, with the red gate, the triad of primary colours that operate in shades and tints in the reversed, and more monumental. set of three-dimensional letters on their layered plinth.
Can there even be a Smart photograph? The test is this portrait of Smart by Greg Weight, in which the photographer, in an attempting to replicate the Smart’s Cahill Expressway discovers that the arrangement in the painting is a fiction and so has to improvise. A photograph taken at the opening of the freeway tunnel reveals how the perspectives of the actual scene cannot match its compression in Smart’s painting in which the curve of the wall is steeper, the Shakespeare Monument above, which in 1959 was repositioned in Shakespeare Place opposite the State Library to make way for the Cahill Expressway, is rendered De Chirico-esque and more dominant, and buildings are rearranged or left out to create the false horizon.
Despite impressions, the role of photography in Smart’s practice is peripheral and we cannot conclude that he has developed a photographic style. Has he inspired other photographers than Greg Weight?
The 1970s saw the influence of American photomedia on Australian practitioners, with Harry Callahan, William Clift, Lee Friedlander and Ralph Gibson visiting here — all photographers with a practice centred on the urban environment and its architecture — along with John Szarkowski, then head of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. David Stephenson stayed. Bill Heimerman came and discovered photography here, through Ian Lobb and Carol Jerrems, and set up The Photographers Gallery and Workshop in South Yarra, which showed Americans, with much influence on neighbouring Prahran College students.
In exchange, attracted by the more vital and earlier-established scene there, Australians were travelling to America to study and work, among them Ian Lobb and Les Walkling, and Fiona Hall who studied at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester. Grant Mudford, originally trained in architecture and from 1965 owned a commercial photography studio in Sydney; according to Robyn Beeche he was recognised at the time for his striking covers for fashion magazine POL in which surrealism featured strongly; “Grant was continually given the freedom to produce extraordinary photographs for POL magazine. To this day, they still hold up to the criteria of being universally accepted and timeless…” says Beeche.
Mudford first exhibited solo at Bonython Gallery, Sydney in 1972, went to the US on Visual Arts Board Travel Grants 1974–1977, and showed the results in 1977 at Light Gallery, New York, Australian Centre for Photography, Powell Street Gallery, Melbourne and the Photographers’ Gallery, London. He stayed in California and remains in Los Angeles now at age 78, having enjoyed success in both commercial and art photography and the Julius Shulman Institute Excellence in Photography Award (2014).
Architectural photographer John Gollings in interview with Adrian Boddy in his East Richmond Studio, Melbourne in July 1991 remarks that “Grant took the reductive quality of Smart a stage further even. He reduced everyday forms beyond de Chirico and everyone else.”
How then, has he taken “Smart a stage further?” You can find the ingredients of a Smart painting in the earliest of his exhibited imagery, like the 1972 Jenolan; the squared, frontal relationship of subject to picture plane for example, and the delight in the patterned textures of engineered steel and the ironic signage.
That approach continues with even more vigour after his initial tour of the United States which produced Oklahoma City, but with more precision, added through the use of a perspective correction lens to control verticals, and a point-source enlarger that reproduces an energetic all-over pattern of grain that is pin-sharp. The light source is a very small, intensely focused, unfrosted clear lamp in a condenser enlarger that eliminates light diffusion before it reaches the negative. In the resultant print the grain appears sharper, and the transition from light to dark at the edge of shadow areas is steeper. The bulb must be precisely positioned both vertically and horizontally for even lighting, and the enlarging lens is left wide open at full aperture during printing to prevent vignetting, so exposure is controlled only by duration or by using a variable transformer.
The result is imagery that Daniel Thomas hailed in 1974 as combining “minute detail with stronger geometric form.” The work met the approval of Clement Greenberg adherent Patrick McCaughey who, writing in the same year in the introduction to Aspects of Australian Photography edited by Graham Howe, reiterated his conviction that photography could not be abstract like the painting he then favoured, but had to find and work with its own inherent qualities. The flatness of Colour Field minimalism would seem out of reach of photography’s inherent three-dimensionality, but as Beatrice Faust wisely perceives, Mudford plays off flatness against depth, subject against abstraction, so that in Oklahoma City the way that the parking sign interlocks with the ‘W’ behind it causes a perceptual itch on top of the vertical placement of the logotype ROADWAY which becomes a redundant label for the tarmac below.
In a Women’s Weekly interview with Susan Duncan, and echoing Smart’s own sentiments, Mudford, then selling prints for $250 (currently equivalent to $1,254.00) explained;
“Sometimes my work has been misunderstood, it’s not meant to be a pictorial judgment of urban or industrial wastelands. I don’t believe there is much truth or many facts in a photograph. The medium is illusionistic. It’s a mistake to see photography as reality […] My pictures aren’t intended to be documentary,” he said. “They deal primarily with formal picture-making issues and illusion.”
In a review of Mudford’s 1986 show at Christine Abrahams’ Gallery held during one of his periodic returns to Australia, Gary Catalano remarks that it was curious that he seemed to place no great value “on the camera’s acknowledged capacity to accurately or exhaustively record the visible world,” recalling Mudford’s statement in a 1983 Photofile that “Photography is a totally inadequate way of describing most things. I don’t see photographs as being very effective conveyors of descriptive information”. Catalano observes the way the frontal placement of compositional elements;
“reaffirm the rectangular and two-dimensional nature of the print itself. Even when Mudford employs differing compositional procedures a comparable effect is likely to be produced. This is especially noticeable in Conveyor Tower
and The Pike, both of which are resolutely graphic in character. As the last image suggests, Mudford also has an interest in
those odd or arresting juxtapositions which alert one to the fundamental strangeness of the commonplace. One of his eyes is
that of a four-square formalist; the other, however, could almost be Martian in its unshuttered gaze.”
I remember walking into Christine Abrahams Gallery in 1988 to see more of Mudford’s laser-eyed monochrome streetscape discoveries, but to my surprise I also encountered a series of deadpan portraits of paint tubs. Almost filling the frame dead centre and with only the grey concrete floors of building sites as background, it was impossible to gauge their scale.
I was not aware of seeing their current title Shiva Paint Tubs and maybe that label was adopted later for them in their 2004 Rosamund Belsen Gallery showing in Los Angeles. Nevertheless, Mudford’s riposte to McCaughey was clear; this was Abstract Expressionism or Colour Field captured ‘in the wild.’ Where Smart held photography at arms-length, Mudford, using photography’s omnivorousness seizes painting by the throat.
A postscript to this conversation — or argument — between photography and painting is the work of George Byrne, also LA-based and born, like Mudford, in Sydney, but in 1976, in the same year that Mudford debuted at Light Gallery in New York. Byrne, in an Aesthetica magazine interview, confesses to being influenced by both Mudford and Smart;
“My inclination towards manipulating images and later using collage came initially through a desire to make very minor adjustments. Then, through a series of accidents, experimentation and repetition, I broke through a creative wall that would allow me to…create landscapes as opposed to just recording them.”
By using digital means Byrne is able to arrive at a synthesis of the painter and photographer that simultaneously begs the question of whether it is one or the other. Contemplation of them reflects on the qualities achieved by Smart and Mudford using more manual, traditional means.