In The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1939) Walter Benjamin expressed a concern that in its ability to reproduce multiple copies of an image, photography would substitute a “plurality of copies for a unique existence”. This unique existence, in artistic terms, meant that artworks belonged to a world of ritual and tradition. Breaking with this tradition was seen by some as placing photography outside the world of art. This, for Benjamin, was not necessarily a disadvantage because it allowed photography to engage more directly with social and political issues.(i)
Other critics and artists, such as Alfred Stieglitz, were determined to have photography accepted as an art form. They adopted some of the styles, genres, subjects and compositional practices of painting into photography. In doing so, however, they also had to pay attention to the Modernist idea that form and content worked together. This meant focusing on “those effects which were irreducibly derived from, and specific to, the very functioning of the photographic apparatus itself”(ii). An additional concern in this regard was the rapid spread of photography into the non-artistic media such as magazines and newspapers.
Photography has responded to these concerns by addressing them directly, and in so doing has indeed become its own medium and its own art form. It has achieved this by developing a practice which treats photography as belonging to the art world in general and to its own world at the same time. It acknowledges the wider ‘cultural code’ and also makes use of its unique ability to capture a moment in time. Often, this capturing of the moment produces an image which is extremely individual and personal. When this is combined with cultural awareness, photography produces its own special blend of aestheticism and subjectivism (iii). It also engages with that vexed, postmodernist question raised by Barthes and Foucault about the role of the artist. Is it possible to create new ways of seeing, or do we simply keep re-arranging the old ones?
It is noticeable that in this exhibition most of the works belong to the landscape genre. There are landscapes with old buildings, landscapes with human figures, and other-worldly landscapes of fantasy and abstraction with no human references at all. Anna Bombardieri’s landscapes are the most traditional. With their mysterious shadows and skies of ethereal light, they convey some of the elegance, charm and historical references of a Claude Lorrain painting.
Peter Hasson also captures an ethereal, other-worldly light, but usually in contrast with the darkness of the earth. There is often no human presence, as if the light and dark forces of nature are left to a primeval or an eternal conflict of their own making. Janet Craig also responds to the forces of nature, but she places a human figure in a central position within these forces. This figure is a pregnant woman who seems to be putting herself and her own personal creation in direct engagement with these forces. The Romantic idea of landscape was that the powers of human consciousness could participate in the powers of Nature. This, of course, was a male consciousness. Craig seems to challenge this concept of male creativity with that of female creativity.
Geoff Fisher’s ghostly forest engages with the forces of nature on a much more spiritual level. Forests have always been associated with feelings of magical, fairy-tale worlds, and also of psychological worlds. Fisher’s landscape of trees is a forest of mystery, light and joy.
Richard Syme, Brian Smyth, Nick Melidonis, Gregory Hocking and Richard Woldendorp all create photographs which owe much to Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist painting. Light, tones and textures are all explored and presented in a way that shows photography making use of these elements as its own and not just borrowed from painting. Syme produces images of the sea which clearly convey its power and mystery. The horizontal band of light indicating a fence indicates the vastness of the sea, but also places a human presence against its mysterious light and dark. In one of his works there is an element of surrealism, with bicycles seeming to be suspended in the sky.
Smyth creates landscapes which could be inspired by the desert, by the dark side of the moon or by science fiction. With their strong contrasts of light and dark, and their strange emptiness, they are dream-like worlds of fantasy and fascination. Fantasy and fascination are also invoked by the images created by Nick Melidonis. With their strong contrasts of darkness and heightened colour, and their almost violent movement, they suggest natural forces of wind and fire, but operating within a strange world of their own.
Richard Woldendorp has the ability to create abstract compositions from the most commonplace of natural features, or human-made ones within the natural environment. His picture of a dam in a ploughed field places the circular image of the dam in an aesthetic field of rich, but understated patterns, tones and textures. Another image is a poignant invocation of a landscape after a fire. Gregory Hocking also has an ability to form the tones and textures of a landscape into an aesthetic composition. His approach is a Minimalist one, and by focusing in on something as simple as mudflats or a shoreline he produces works reminiscent of non-objective paintings.
Angeline Hazebroek creates images which seem to combine landscape with still life. There are small trees and even mushrooms in blue fields of colour. The charm of these is that the blue and green colours have the richness of jewellery. Tony Hewitt is also influenced by the still life genre, but he is also fascinated by tones and textures not of the landscape, but of manufactured materials such as old car bodies. He focuses in so closely that without brand names such as ‘Ford’ the objects would be hardly recognizable.
Vittorio Natoli follows in the Fine Art tradition that presents the mystery and complexity of the human figure. His style, however, is distinctly photographic. Like Max Dupain, he shows the human body as heroic in itself and also as a subject by means of which to explore the play of light and dark as reflected and absorbed by the colours and textures of human skin.
David Brittain is the only artist to work in the photographic tradition of capturing a moment of human interest, drama or poignancy. They are also marked as photographs by their sepia tones. Like Cartier-Bresson Brittain’s images capture a ‘decisive moment’. These are not world-changing moments, but moments of human insight – like that of an old woman passing a young busker, who seems to repeat her aged stoop. She also passes a dress shop displaying dresses which she might have worn when she was younger.
Most of the works in this exhibition follow the Stieglitz philosophy of fitting into the Fine Art tradition. In so doing they remind us that not only did photography adopt many of the practices of painting, but also that modernist painting was forced to make adjustments in response to photography. Painters began to use approaches such as capturing the moment, picture cut-off. Most of all they were made to consider the many and varied effects of light and shade. These works do not necessarily show us those techniques or practices which are ‘irreducibly derived’ from photography. They do not pursue political agendas, which for most of us is something of a relief! They do, however, show a group of professional photographers doing many of the things that photographers do best.
(i) W. Benjamin. (1936). The Work of Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction, in Art in Modern Culture. (1992). F Frascina &
J. Harris (eds) London: Open University. 297-307.
(ii) V. Burgin. (1986). The End of Art Theory: Criticism and Postmodernity. London: Macmillan Education. 67.
(iii) S. Connor. Postmodernist Culture (1997 2nd ed). Oxford: Blackwell. 104-108.
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