A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE
From antiquity to the Renaissance, and even to the conceptual tendencies in modern art, Western art theory has had a certain bias towards the intellectual aspect of art-making, and has often tended to depreciate the manual and technical aspects of the process. Leonardo da Vinci, for example, wrote of painting as essentially a discorso mentale, as opposed to sculpture, the art of his archrival Michelangelo, which was more “mechanical”.
And yet Leonardo was at the same time a technical prodigy and the greatest practitioner of his generation — at least in drawing and oil painting, even if his mural experiments were less successful — and all theoretical writers of the past took it for granted that artists were masters of the material practices through which they had to express their ideas.
For every art form has a craft behind it, which is not only a manual practice but a set of processes in which hand and mind work together to manipulate matter in the production of meaning. In fact, one of the ironies of art today is that painting has been crippled by the loss of confidence in technical articulacy while in art forms based on new technologies, high levels of technical skill are regarded as indispensable.
Photography is an interesting case, for the age of the digital camera has finished off any claim the photographic image once had to the veracity of direct witness, and, by obviating the need for technical skill, made the taking of superficially satisfactory pictures too easy. Serious contemporary photographers have had to find other ways to use their medium, but by far the greater part of the corpus of great photography remains pre-digital and in black and white.
One can’t help being struck by such thoughts on entering Mervyn Bishop’s exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW. Immediately the images have a crispness, a clarity and decisiveness that all come from the artist’s mastery of his medium: each picture required decisions about filters, aperture and shutter speed, as well as composition and timing — and these were decisions that often had to be made quickly and efficiently, in the heat of the moment.
All of these skills were honed by years of experience as a newspaper photographer: Bishop, born in 1945, was hired as a cadet by The Sydney Morning Herald in 1962, the first Aboriginal photographer to work at the paper. But it is clear too that technical skill is not just a matter of dominating the medium: it is also a matter of coming to understand what it is capable of, becoming attuned to it.
Thus, even from a distance one is struck by Bishop’s sense of composition, which is what makes the difference between a snap and memorable photography. And the sense of composition is itself based on two things. The first is an intuitive understanding of the inherent geometry of the picture area — its divisions into halves, quarters, thirds; its diagonals; even the location of the golden section in width or in height. These are the factors that make the placement of a head or figure significant rather than random.
The other aspect of photographic composition immediately visible in these works is the use of perspective, again something inherent in the very nature of the medium, for photography is heir to the Renaissance theory of perspective. It is in fact a mechanical realisation of the theoretical model of monocular vision directed at a single focal point, a model so unlike the way our two eyes, constantly glancing in different directions, actually see the world, yet so good at producing fixed and memorable images.
The subjects of these photographs are almost all drawn from the life of Aboriginal Australia, mostly from the 1960s and 70s, although a couple of shots included in the exhibition are from as late as 1988. Bishop’s images are engaging in their sincerity, directness and lack of either sentimentality or rhetoric. An early example is the shot of his two younger cousins rowing a boat on the river, and another from the same year shows both white and black children biting at apples on a string.
Lionel Rose at his press conference (1968)