The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

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)

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