The vitreous eye of the camera crystallises, elucidates and glosses.
In a current exhibition at Castlemaine Art Museum curator Jenny Long presents a spectrum of works by Australian artists Rick Amor, Howard Arkley, Clarice Beckett, Penleigh Boyd, Rupert Bunny, Alexander Colquhoun, Ethel Carrick Fox, E Phillips Fox, William Gould, Percy Leason, Fred Leist, Frederick McCubbin, Max Meldrum, Margaret Preston, Tom Roberts, Jeffrey Smart and Arthur Streeton from the collection, around the theme of luminosity, radiance and reflection. Long asks;
“What is light? It is the warmth from the sun, it is all colour, it is particles of energy, it travels in waves, it is fast. Starlight, light on water, the iridescence of shells, light is refracted through glass, it falls on skin and fabric. Light is a sudden flash, a revelation or, as in the famous poem by Emily Dickinson which lends its title to this exhibition, light is life and death.”
Frequent visitors to the exhibition over its duration since 5 March 2022 (it closes 28 May 2023), have seen the show refract — literally ‘break up,’ and reform in its arrangement — as guest artists and loaned works have been incorporated including Lola Greeno, Naminapu Maymura-White, Robert Hunter, Jenni Kemarre Martiniello, and Mark Galea, whose Components for the construction of a positive outlook, a free-standing reconfigurable sculptural assemblage of more than human scale (which Alexander Calder or Jean Arp might call a ‘stabile’ since it implies mobility) sets prismatic squares of pure hues afloat to entice and entrance those who enter.
Throughout this extended and evolving exhibition curator Long has reserved the other end of the Witchell Gallery for monochromatic works, including the Hunter, and Arkley’s Seltsamer from his first exhibition in 1975 which is now in the collection.
The most recent recruit for that end of the space, since November, is Melbourne photographer Jane Brown, showing work that intones from the basso profundo end of the scale. As the viewer soon realises, such an impression of Brown’s work, given the exhibition title There’s a certain Slant of Light, will be coloured by angles of view, reflection and refraction, and by tints from the histories of photography, the art of drawing with light.
Those histories are made present by Brown’s installations within three substantial vintage vitrines drawn from the century-old gallery’s store of display furniture. In one, through glass rippled with age, visitors are intrigued to peer into a nineteenth-century instrument from Brown’s own collection, a graphoscope, intended for the viewing of photographs and, in this later model, of stereoscopes. A still more elaborate version is the Megalethoscope devised by merchant of Venice postcards, Carlo Ponte, while other variations have been the Carl Zeiss synopter and the plastoscope and iconoscope.
The graphoscope descends from an eighteenth century device that predates photography known engagingly as the zograscope; an adjustable stand with a mirror and single large lens in which an engraving (on which the title was printed in reverse for this purpose) was placed upside down to be seen reflected in the mirror, through the lens, the correct way up—and apparently with an added (and proven) sense of depth and plasticity.
Viewing with both eyes through the single lens of the graphoscope we can test this effect in viewing Brown’s Echo and Narcissus (or the Large Glass) that her device holds. These photographs in silver gelatin applied to mirrors are aptly titled, given the reference to the myth, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, of the mountain nymph Echo rejected by Narcissus in favour of his true love; his own reflection. Brown says she was prompted to choose that subject by the music-themed decorative engraving on the face of the device.
We see this pair of images hovering on their mirror surfaces at the focal point of the large plano-convex magnifying glass (it would be called a condenser if it were in a photographic enlarger). It has been suggested that the graphoscope allowed presbyopic viewers to see the images clearly; but why not just put on one’s reading glasses? The trouble and expense involved points to a more significant purpose like that of the zograscope; to enhance the realistic appearance of two-dimensional images, and indeed, viewing Echo in particular one sees the stems and leaves depicted ‘pop’ convincingly into three-dimensions.
The instrument’s arrangement minimises surrounding indicators of depth that would let us know this is a flat picture, and also because the image is magnified to nearer the scale of the real scene the picture is depicting. As the light coming from the lens to the eyes is collimated, it confounds accommodation; the image is suspended at an indeterminable range. The broad, thick lens could also enhance depth perception by creating binocular stereopsis, because each eye views the image through a different part of the magnifying glass, and the stereoscopic effects integrate with other depth clues in the image to create the illusion.
Another, temporal depth develops here as through the glass case holding this ‘machine for viewing’ we are transported into the 19th century, and though another connection, to modernism. Reference in Brown’s title for this work to Marcel Duchamp‘s celebrated, hundred-year-old, Delay in Large Glass also known as The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, is apt, given that it is a sculpture painted on the back and front of two framed but transparent (background-less) windows that may be looked at, and through, and on which elements, like the ‘chocolate grinder,’ are represented three-dimensionally.
Brown is a librarian at the University of Melbourne University of Melbourne where she manages a photographic collection and lectures on photo histories and photographic conservation. That consciousness is likely behind her cross-referencing her exquisite photogram of her grandmother’s crystal serving platter with another Duchamp title, of his 1918 work on glass To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour in which the words are inscribed (in French) on a strip of metal glued across its centre, inviting viewers to peer through a lens haloed by concentric circles and mounted between the two panes of glass for an hallucinatory view; dwarfed, flipped, and distorted.
Her photogram’s hanging with Margaret Preston’s Waterlilies and Arthur Streeton’s Blue Hydrangeas (both works being contemporaries of The Large Glass) draws attention to the glass vessels containing the flowers in those works, and whose botanical specimens lead the eye back across the gallery to consider Brown’s series of toned silver gelatin prints The Forcing House (Tropenhaus).
While Preston’s and Streeton’s flowers are presented conventionally, in glass containers, Brown’s plants are under glass; in such greenhouses plants are forced to mature rapidly, especially in quantities for market, or out of season or—for a purpose that fascinates Brown—to thrive in a climate not their own. The work was inspired by a visit to the tropical house in the botanical garden of the University of Basel and then enlarged with studies at the botanical garden in Zurich, in the Jardin botanique de Neuchâtel and on the Isola di Brissago near Locarno. There is a link also to a local history; glass-plate negatives of Castlemaine portrait photographer Adolphus Verey (1862–1933) were repurposed into greenhouses around the district.
Plants crowd close to the moist and misted glass and where leaves touch the surface, they appear strangely solarised—semi-negative. We view them under a further layer of glass, that of the picture frame, and that reinforces a consciousness of Brown’s fascination with light and the optics of photography.
Mere pixels fail to convey the rich timbre of these prints which resonate within these pictorially shallow spaces as in the body of a viola, or the gap between the panes in Duchamp’s work. Furthermore, installed in the gallery, the viewer is aware that each framed photograph encompasses in reflection the paintings on the walls behind them, because the rich blacks serve as a Claude Glass or black mirror as used by English and French Baroque painters to identify and abbreviate the tonal values of a scene.
A previous revolution that had brought subtlety and depth to the painting of tone was the Venetian Renaissance artists’ adoption of the Flemish discovery of oil paint, and their application of it on canvas. For photographers, silver salts suspended in albumen, collodion or gelatin equate to those pigments dissolved and carried in oil; there is a depth that cannot be achieved by jets of ink, now commonly used to print, that merely ride the surface. Brown’s ventures in her own darkroom with toners, bleaching and ageing film stock, and vintage processes with their direct reference to the history of photography, dates to 2009 and her first solo showA hopeless taste of eternity resulted in an invitation to the ANU Masterclass organised by Martyn Jolly in 2015. Brown muses that;
‘Printing with chemistry and using light sensitive paper has been such an important part of photomechanical history. Perhaps we will be the last generation to work with the medium in this way? It’s a thought that somewhat haunts all my work – a liminal world that’s on the threshold of change.’
These technologies, beside photograms and internegatives, Brown uses to enter Into Something Rich and Strange, the title of a series made in Venice in which we find further connection with those Venetian painters, acknowledged in several images displayed alongside the botanical works and taken in that city, known also over centuries for its glass.
Accordingly, Brown investigates in straight photography and photograms a Victorian crystal prism mantle lustre and candleholder from CAM’s rich collection of glass objects that date back to Roman times. We can imagine the candleholder placed in front of a large mirror over the fireplace, scattering refracted shards of candlelight around the richly appointed parlour of a Castlemaine mine owner. Visitors would leave their cartes-de-visite, then all the rage, in the black lacquer tray which accompanies Brown’s framed, collodion, albumen and orotone prints displayed in another, larger, vitrine. Two are richly warm-hued photograms of the lustreware candleholder.
On the other side of the glass case we find an enlarged version of the Narcissus image in the graphoscope. It is a montage of four identical frames rotated and ‘bookmatched’ for an overall symmetry that we take at first to be an elaborate oval frame, like that of the mirror on the elaborate jewel box in Triptych II across in the corner of the gallery. On closer examination it proves to be the gracefully arching frond of a palm, and tropical leaves at each corner. Where all the images meet at the centre, they form an emblematic eye extending sharp rays. The golden icon-like quality of this and other prints by Brown is achieved with orotone printing; a glass plate pre-coated with a silver gelatin or albumen emulsion which after exposure and development, is coated on the back of the plate with gold-coloured pigment creating a gold-toned image, and copper, silver or brass hues may also be achieved through the same process. Gold prints are appropriate to this gold-mining town.
This post merely touches on Brown’s intricate and ingenious theme of photographic vitrification and crystallisation, and it deserves a visit in person to her exhibition to understand its many-facetted and poetic allusions. They are made all the more rich in the company of fine paintings, the technical quality of which is matched in her exquisite printing that can only be appreciated at first hand.
There’s a certain Slant of light,
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes-
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us-
We can find no scar,
But internal difference-
Where the Meanings, are-
None may teach it – Any-
‘Tis the seal Despair-
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air-
When it comes, the Landscape listens-
Shadows – hold their breath-
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death