STUDY IN CON­TRAST

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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)

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