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Friday, 5 September 2014


Minimalist snapshots of the landscape
 “Landscape photography is the supreme test of the photographer - and often the supreme disappointment. ” 
Ansel Adams

One of the several annoying things reading Ansel Adams is that he basically thinks there is only one way to take a photograph. If you don’t have a certain lens, with a particular filter attached, and you are not shooting on 4x5 sheet film or larger, forget it. Your picture might be pretty, but that’s all. It’s a bit like sitting at the lights in your Fiat Bambino when a guy in a Bentley pulls up alongside, winds down the window and tells you your car is crap because it doesn’t have multi point fuel injection. As the lights change and he roars off, you’re left wondering how it is some people know so much and get so little.
 Scattered throughout the collection are snapshots of the landscape with a particular quality that Adams would have dismissed without a second glance. It isn’t that they are pretty pictures; some of them are that but what makes them work may not be what the photographer was hoping for. In their minimalist aesthetic they are all about space and light, the two qualities Adams believed were sacred to landscape photography, and the most elusive. 

 One of the general assumptions about landscape photography is that everything in a professional’s image is there by intention, while in an amateur’s it only may be. Professionals don’t make happy accidents. Here’s a snapshot taken in Canada, which has more than 31 000 lakes, so forget about exactly where. We can see why the photographer might have taken this; the scene has a still, quiet atmosphere, but we cannot be absolutely sure that he or she met the intentions. On the one hand it is a non-image; it looks like a random shot. On the other, the placement of the figures, especially to the left, is almost perfect. The image has harmony and balance. 

 Another from the school of less is more. Without the car the photo would be boring. If the car had been framed properly, it would be too perfect. In the middle foreground, and too small to be seen without zooming in, is another car crossing the open ground. Just above the main car, also only obvious by zooming in, is a barn or stable. A fence runs alongside the trees at the right foreground and some indeterminate object is emerging from them. How much of this the photographer was conscious of doesn’t matter. An apparently empty scene reveals a wealth of detail. 

 If you asked Ansel Adams what he thought of this photo, he may just deign to give an answer but it would be rude. If you asked Robert Adams, he might pause and contemplate what would have transpired had the photographer used a decent camera. Being a photographer who likes symmetry and the absence of it, he might approve of the way the three important elements, the power pole and the two kiosks, are framed, barely nudging the bottom of the image. The photo was taken at Port Noarlunga, a resort on the outskirts of Adelaide (Australia, if you need to know). At the time holiday towns like Noarlunga amounted to a scattering of fibro and asbestos shacks, a shop that sold fishing equipment and a milk bar. Not much else was needed. The kiosk on the left advertises Alaska and the one on the right Amscol, the two big rivals for South Australia’s ice cream market in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. More poignant to anyone old enough to remember is the sign for pies, pasties and cool drinks on the side of the Amscol kiosk. Some people lived through the summer on nothing else. 

 Big oil. Robert Adams almost certainly would approve of the ethereal, discarnate appearance of the rigs; Ansel Adams might too. There is nothing accidental here. The photographer was struck by the number of oil wells receding to the distance and that the only way to distinguish the water from the sky is the thin ribbon of land at the left. This was taken in North America in the 1950s or 60s, when oil was cheap, everyone was told it would be around for years and concerns about pollution were only mentioned in passing. To the photographer, this scene was not only visually beautiful, it represented American power. Today, a photographer like Richard Misrach would look at the scene from a similar vantage point but emphasize the sickly yellow taint of the water or the gathering rust on the rigs.


This photograph comes from the same set of Mississippi landscapes posted a few months earlier.  I said then that the photographer had the eye. This photo confirms that. The composition can’t be improved on. The barrier and the ground in front occupy precisely the space they ought to. The atmosphere with the heavy clouds moving in from the sea speaks of an uncomfortable but not oppressive humidity. Like some of the other photos here, ultimately what makes it work is its sense of quiet solitude. There could be a tiki bar full of raucous Americans in Hawaiian shirts and a car park lined with Cadillacs and Thunderbirds just behind the photographer, but you would never know it.

 Alaska in the summer is said to be wretched; stifling heat, and swarms of mosquitoes and black fly bring no relief from the long winters. What it does have going for it, apparently, is spectacular light. Filtered through the polar atmosphere, it possesses qualities found nowhere else. This actually befuddled early photographers. They wanted to record the brilliant sunrises and sunsets and all they got was a disreputable mess of blurred outlines and muddy tones. We can say our photographer understood how they felt. Technically, this is a failure, but so what? If our parameters for success include the rendering of the landscape into abstract patterns of tones, this qualifies. 

 Funny how some critics have to defend accusations that Hiroshi Sugimoto’s seascapes are boring by admitting first off that they are, only to contradict themselves and insist that they are not. By any intelligent person’s judgement the works are boring or they are not. Vacillating is a sure sign said critic is in the wrong job. This writer has seen a few in real life and thought they were mostly beautiful, but there are many beautiful photos out there. He prefers this photo to any of them. The problem with the Sugimoto seascapes is that they are contrived to the degree you sense he looks out upon the sea and feels, well, nothing much, beyond a calculated understanding of how to render the scene in ways that appear delicate and fragile. With this photo on the other hand, we have the feeling our photographer was genuinely moved. In the process he or she took a photograph that is banal yet visually compelling.

  How many of us have stood at the sea’s edge at sunset and wished for a camera? There are approximately 7 billion people on the planet. If we say (a random guess) that a quarter live by the coast, that roughly a tenth of them have access to a camera or some kind of recording device, then we are still talking millions. Somebody with more time on their hands could work out a more precise figure, but we get the picture, right? This snapshot was taken in Turkey in 1933. Historically, Alfred Stieglitz took the last of his cloud studies known as the Equivalents series just two years earlier. What would he have thought of this one; that he had wished he had taken it himself? It is old and a bit knocked about but the clouds have a muscular power.

 Another Turkish snapshot, and one that reconciles everything this post has been about. It was taken from a moving vehicle, (car, bus or train) and again it is a technical failure, again it transmits something that may have fallen short of the photographer’s intention yet holds our eye. I am reminded in a way of the vast abstract paintings that hang in commercial offices. The streak off light at the left (it could be the galvanized tin roof of a building) is not meant to be there, but only a painter with an eye on the market would think of putting it there. At first glance we see shapes, at second they begin to form into vaguely recognizable objects. Like all the photographs here, what’s interesting about it lies in that space between what the photographer saw and what he or she wanted to say.


Monday, 1 September 2014


 Cartes de visite from gold rush era Melbourne
“A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.”
Edward Steichen

Here’s a coincidence of absolutely no historical importance. In 1835 William Fox Talbot made his first successful paper negatives, marking for some the birth of the invention of photography (purists prefer to look back a couple of decades earlier). The same year but on the other side of the world, John Batman, a grazier from Sydney via Van Diemen’s Land, had raised interest among investors for a settlement at Port Philip Bay on Australia’s south coast, making the case that it was excellent country for sheep. He wasn’t the only one with an eye on the land. Purists also argue that the real credit for the foundation of the settlement that became Melbourne should go to John Fawker. All Batman wanted was enough land and a good port to make a sheep industry viable. Fawker was the one who imagined a city. Without him Melbourne might have remained a big farm, called Batville, which is of course an excellent name for a state capital. Not a lot happened, certainly not much worth photographing, until 1850, when gold was discovered in the nearby foothills. Within a year the population had quadrupled, from approximately 10 000 to 50 000 and it kept growing. By 1854 the local newspapers were calling Melbourne the cultural capital of the British Empire. Quite a few in London were inclined to agree. As a new city fuelled by new money it sparkled next to London, which was old, polluted and generally thought to be hopelessly riddled with crime.  

Naturally, the gold rush city needed a few photographic studios. The best known of the portrait photographers was Perez Batchelder, subject of a post a couple of years back, but his story is worth recapping. Operating out of San Francisco during the Californian gold rush, when news of the Victorian gold discoveries broke he packed up, sold off and boarded a ship. The ‘flying studio’ that Eadweard Muybridge made famous in the 1860s may have been bought off Batchelder. Perez’s brothers followed him and Batchelder’s, at 41Collins St, became what today we’d call a name brand.
One of the (few) interesting details about the studios in gold rush Melbourne has to do with the connections that emerge. Actually, this is true of studios around the world. People start working for one, break away to start their own, employ someone else, who sets up their business a couple of years later and before long there is a web of relationships spread across town based on commercial photography. Originally employed by Batchelder’s as a miniature painter, John Botterill was one of the driving forces in creating an official Melbourne arts society. By the late 1850s he had a solid reputation as a commercial photographer and a society painter. This is a statement that requires some elucidation. To be a society artist in Melbourne in the gold rush era meant acknowledging that no matter how many claimed it was the most exciting place to be right now, the real centres of the art world, London and Paris, were on the other side of the planet. One heard of new ideas in art months after Parisians had forgotten them. Cartes de visite from the Botterill studio are fairly common. Unfortunately, the work he probably wanted to be remembered for, his landscapes and society portraits, are not. The stamp on the reverse of the first image, from the Batchelder Studio, lists Botterill as one of the proprietors.

Most Australians have not heard of Charles Nettleton, though they probably know his portrait of Ned Kelly, taken the day before the outlaw/national hero was hanged. Nettleton began his photographic career working for Townsend Duryea, who like Batchelder arrived from America at the height of the rush, realized what a drag digging for gold was and promptly made his fortune in photography. Duryea is one of those people whose personal contribution to culture is not as impressive as the debt a long line of artists owe to him. He could plausibly claim that one of the leading art schools in the world, the Art Institute of Chicago, would not exist today had not one of its founders, Henry Spread, had his start in Duryea's Melbourne studio. Nettleton then belongs in a long line of grateful acolytes, but that is not to belittle him. Unlike Botterill, who it seems had standards when it came to what he would photograph, Nettleton covered the whole waterfront, meaning he was often the only photographer available to record important events, such as the prelude to Kelly’s execution.  

Photo-historians spend their lives chasing down information on obscure commercial photographers, all the while knowing that what attracted them in the first place wasn’t the person behind the camera but the people in front of it.  This woman is identified on the back of the carte as “Christina Elizabeth Smith, wife of William Smith and daughter of J. McPherson”. Searching genealogical records for the surname Smith is too tedious to bear thinking about, made harder because, during the gold rush, Melbourne was a city of immigrants. Her family could have arrived from Tasmania, Scotland, the USA, Canada, South Africa or even India. Suffice to say, a search for her records requires a professional commitment, but the really interesting thing about Christina Elizabeth is that she looks so typical. The ringlets in her hair and lace collar tell us at once she is a woman of the 1860s. We’d know the look at once if the photo had been taken in Chicago or Edinburgh. 

But there was something special about Melbourne. Up until the 19th century most cities in the world had long histories; if they possessed something as dubious as a personality it had been created over centuries. Like San Francisco, Melbourne’s birth as a city came about through exceptional events. By 1860s it had the appearance of having arrived fully formed. When people called it the cultural capital of the Empire, they were also saying it was more British than any actual British city. That idea persists. People used to compare Sydney and Melbourne by saying the first was hedonistic and the second reserved, or prudish (or Victorian). Maybe that had nothing to do with any supposedly definable character but that it looked like a British city ought to with a new coat of paint; like London without the mistakes.

Yet if Melbourne was politically part of the British Empire, culturally it was one of the new international cities, so full of Irish, Chinese, Russians, French. Italians, Swedes, Dutch and Americans that it was normal to assume your neighbour did not speak your language. Just like San Francisco, as soon as people disembarked from their ship they reinvented themselves and assumed new names and life histories. These portraits might look like they could have been taken anywhere, but being Melbourne C1860 we have to assume that nothing is what it seems.

 Anybody searching through boxes and albums of Australian cartes de visite will quickly realize that most of the early one come from Melbourne. It is a sign of the city's prosperity and of its population boom. Reports from Sydney at the time describe how the city suddenly emptied of people. Most of the cartes come from the Batchelder, the Botterill and Nettleton studios. Someone mad enough could attempt to track down all the surviving examples. There are probably tens of thousands out there; enough to give us a comprehensive visual record of the city's population. It sounds like an admirable project and ought to be encouraged.