STUDY IN CONTRAST
n the early days of the new medium, photographers travelled across the world, taking the first pictures of ancient ruins, famous buildings and exotic cities, which were duly published in the equally new and immensely popular illustrated papers of the day.
But from the beginning there has always been a parallel curiosity about pictures of home, of the world in which the audience for illustrated papers and later books of photographs actually lived.
Part of the reason for this was that the huge modern cities that were the capitals of the modern world, such as London, Paris and New York, were so vast and complex that whole districts might remain foreign to the middle-class viewer — whether industrial areas and docklands or the quarters inhabited by the growing urban underclass, considered picturesque but insalubrious, if not dangerous.
These cities were changing rapidly too, so that photographers either celebrated the new constructions or, like Eugene Atget in Paris, commemorated quarters that were about to be demolished to make way for the modern city.
But the documentation of unfamiliar parts of one’s own city was not the only reason for the popularity of urban photography, which extended to pictures of urban life, of people and their habits, as well as of the architectural fabric of the city. Often such photographs were of motifs that were eminently familiar, so familiar in fact that they were taken for granted, ignored until the picture had invited the viewer to see them with new eyes.
The question is, at the deepest level, one of attention. We look at a photograph of a building or a city square that we know and are struck by the beauty the photographer has revealed. Much of this effect comes from the artist’s mastery of composition and lighting, but ultimately the fact remains that we might have glimpsed some of this beauty for ourselves if we had been looking for it, or not entangled in our own minds and thus unable to see anything.
The trouble is that our attention is usually elsewhere. When we go to an exhibition, we are at least prepared to look carefully at each item on the wall, and thus not surprisingly we tend to see things that we did not notice when we walked past the motifs themselves, in a state of distraction. Of course we cannot pay attention equally to everything, but both beauty and ugliness are there for us to see with absolute clarity whenever we can free ourselves from preoccupation, self-interest and anxiety.
An exhibition is thus an opportunity to suspend the chatter of the mind and focus our attention on the works displayed, but those works have to be capable of holding our attention, or we will rapidly turn away. And in art — even in photography, with its implicit claim to the veracity of a direct copy — it is artifice that makes an image striking and memorable.
This was very clear to Harold Cazneaux (1878-1953), the greatest pictorialist photographer in Australia, a selection of whose work, with an appropriate emphasis on water and the sea, is exhibited at the National Maritime Museum in Sydney’s Darling Harbour. Like such international contemporaries as Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz, Cazneaux was determined to raise photography to the status of an art, and this meant departing from documentary realism and seeking to evoke mood and feeling.
The modernist photographers who followed them tended to denigrate the pictorialists for their love of atmospheric effects and their imitation of painterly style. The modernists preferred clarity and realism. But by the end of last century, the claims of photography to veracity had been undermined from many directions, and contemporary photographers had returned to various forms of artifice.
The pictorialist photographers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were in turn rediscovered; important exhibitions were held — there was a comprehensive retrospective of Cazneaux at the AGNSW in 2008 — and their prints began to once again be eagerly sought by collectors.
In hindsight, we can see that the devotion to truth of a great modernist photographer such as Ansel Adams is also based on artifice of a different kind: he avoids suggestive and moody effects, but his dramatic landscapes would be impossible without very careful choice of moment, as well as the resort to filters and subsequent darkroom manipulation.
Cazneaux had no qualms about atmospheric effects or the manipulation of light and shade to make his subjects more suggestive. In fact, although he was concerned to represent Australian sunlight, he wrote in 1919 that one of the challenges for the artistic photographer in this country was its “extreme clearness of atmosphere and absence of haze or mist”. This was the sort of attitude ridiculed by later modernist critics and almost always cited with condescension by later writers unconsciously steeped in modernist prejudices.
If we look at Cazneaux’s work without such preconceptions, however, we are more likely to be struck by the extraordinary artistry he displays in the handling of tone, at times almost abstract like the shape of music, but always tied to the sense of his various motifs.
Perhaps most remarkable is his powerful range of light and dark, without ever — as later in Adams — extending to the extremes of black and white. As with many early photographers, we have the sense of the time taken by light to imprint its image on the negative, as well as the time taken in the process of enlargement, which imbue the picture with a more solid materiality than many later photographs.
In his harbour pictures, Cazneaux looked (1931) above; two children on a homemade raft in Sydney Harbour (undated), left; opposite page, clockwise from top: Man o’ war jetty Arch in the sky,
From the east, Wharf 5 Darling Harbour for drama, pathos and movement where others might see only the bustle of commerce, commuting and daily business. He was on the watch for significant juxtapositions and narratively telling details, as we can see for example in his shot of an elegant sailing boat in front of the imposing hulk of HMS Renown.
On the occasion of the visit of the General Barquedano, a handsome sailing ship used by the Chilean navy as a training vessel, Cazneaux set it beside a modern warship in one picture, and even more effectively set its prow in the foreground of a picture with the Harbour Bridge behind. In another image, Old hulk, the imposing but obsolete mass of an old 19th-century sailing ship is contrasted with the Pyrmont power station in the background.
But these motifs by themselves would be limited in interest without the intense work of pictorial construction in such works as Old hulk or Preparation for departure which hangs next to it. In both, the smoke produced by the ships themselves, as well as no doubt the choice of morning or evening light conditions, help to mitigate the problem of excessive “clearness”.
But Cazneaux doesn’t hesitate to make additional clouds to strengthen the composition. As he notes in connection with one of these harbour pictures: “some pictorial possibilities were offered in this subject. The effect was assisted by printing in suitable clouds — and the pigmentation was carried out to support light coming from behind the ships …” Consciously or unconsciously, he seems to be recalling
Harold Cazneaux’s Study in Curves (c. 1920); (1930); (1920s)