PAINTER WITH A LOT TO TEACH PHOTOGRAPHERS

smart002Australian painter and long time Italian resident Jeffrey Smart died recently at 91.  As a photographer I’ve always thought that he had a lot to teach me. His sense of composition and balance is flawless.

The use small portraits in a vast land or industrial scape is both a device to imply scale and to place humans into context within the landscape, is a technique I like. It’s also one that is used by some photographers … perhaps most successfully by English portraitist, Andy Earl.

Smart’s 1991-92 portrait of writer/broadcaster  Clive James, has become one of the iconic images of post-war Australian art. It’s a painting that I always spend time with, each time I visit the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Co-incidentally, I bought a copy of MASTER OF STILLNESS  Jeffrey Smart Paintings 1940 – 2011, by Barry Pearce (Wakefield Press RRP $A49.99) a couple of weeks before he died. I have been dipping into it since I bought it, and it is a great introduction to his work. Production values are high so it is possible to get a good overview of the paintings.

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No FAIRIES AT THE BOTTOM OF MY GARDEN

zeusNo fairies, but  Seamus O’Nome has been pottering around for many years and a couple of weeks ago he was joined by an altogether different sort of mythical character,  Zeus, father of the gods and man.

I found him languishing in a pile of junk waiting to be taken to the tip, which I thought an undignified end for such a mighty being so I rescued him, and he now sits, slightly battered, behind a Grass Tree in with the cactii and succulents.

So far there hasn’t been a display of lightning and thunder but he has proved to be a willing model for a number of photographs taken with my 500mm mirror lens. Comparisons may be odious, but the difference between a hand-held shot of Zeus and one on a tripod, is almost enough to make one swear off ever hand-holding again.

However, ten minutes of lugging my old Manfrotto tripod (bought for a 4 x 5 view camera) is enough to remind me of why I don’t use it very much. Perhaps one of the new jazzy looking graphite is the answer or a Gorilla Pod? Or both?

If I am to get consistent results with the 500mm Reflex-Nikkor C I am going to have to do something soon.

PEEPING TOM?

Almost exactly a year ago I posted a piece about a photographer who photographed passing subway trains. Great photographs in themselves but I had reservations about the morality of it.

“I have always defended the right of photographers to take photographs of whatever they choose, subject to the law and moral obligations – no child porn, for example. But I was confronted with the ethics of it when I saw a photograph on The OnlinePhotographer Blog. I followed the link (www.johnslaytor.com/commuters.html) to find and astonishing series of photographs of commuters on trains. My initial, and lasting reaction is that these are street photographs that truly qualify as art. My second was that these are among the rawest people shots I have ever seen. So many of the people look so tired, so sad, so angry, that my second thought was has anyone the moral right to strip bare the emotions of people they don’t know, or ever will know.

“Slaytor’s photographs of people gazing out of a train window showed the subjects at a moment extraordinary vulnerability … a moment when they supposed themselves to be unobserved. It seemed to me to be an almost unforgivable intrusion into a person’s life, and their privacy. None of them were newsworthy. None was a celebrity. None agreed to be photographed. Why should their inner selves be hung out to dry?

“The Online Photographer quotes John Slaytor as saying ‘I photographed commuters in trains from the outside of the train as they passed me by, approximately one and a half meters away at forty kilometers an hour. I couldn’t see the commuters and they couldn’t see me.’ “

Much more disturbing is the current debate over the images of  the occupants of an apartment block photographed from a facing building using a long lens by a person hiding in the shadows.
If I did the same thing shooting through the windows of strangers with a long lens I would, quite rightly, be labelled a Peeping Tom, whether or not I labelled my photographs “Art”.
I don’t see any difference here. If I had reservations about Slaytor’s methods I have absolutely none about Arne Svenson’s. His actions are a gross invasion of privacy.

ARCHIE LIEBERMAN: NEIGHBORS

lieberman_small

For the first time in some years I pulled Neighbors from the shelf and looked at the pictures and re-read to copy. And perhaps because I realised than one of the principal subjects, Billy Hammer, was just 12 days younger than I am and that I’ve outlived him by 23 years the book hit home in a raw emotional way this time around.

And as it happened a copy of my original critique of the book was sitting in the front, so I’ve appended it here. I probably wouldn’t write it the same way now.

NEIGHBORS
Archie Lieberman 1926 – 2008
No, not the dreadful television soap, but an interesting book of black and white photographs from American photographer, Archie Lieberman. Neighbors is an extra-ordinary 40 year documentation of a small Illinois farming community. Lieberman first went to the small town of Scales Mound in 1954, to photograph a
young farm girl who had won a national sewing contest.

Something about the place struck a chord with him, and he kept returning to photograph them time and time again. Eventually, in 1973 he bought a farm there, eventually moving to the town permanently in 1983.

In 1974, twenty years after his initial shoot, he published  his first book on the community — Farm Boy — which was widely acclaimed. Neighbors is his latest effort and is the distillation of 58,584 photographs he has taken of the land
and its people.

In those 1627—odd rolls of 35mm film, he has shot photographs of successive generations of Scales Mound residents. Finally editing them down to 174 frames for this book. Taken all together it is a considerable achievement, but individually the pictures range from the remarkable to the banal.

This does not detract from the power of Neighbors, as that’s as it should be. Life is not all high drama, it has more of the banal than it does of the exquisite. Some of Lieberman’s photographs are as warm and friendly as a pair of old woolly
socks. Others confront and intrude showing that living in a small insular community has its ups and downs.

Happy shots of weddings and other family events, jostle uncomfortably with photographs of farmers being sold up and the bleakness of a not very prosperous existence. All of them accompanied by an unsettling text which is a mixture of
Lieberman’s observations and first person dialogue from the subjects themselves.

Despite what has obviously been a warm, and close relationship between Lieberman and the people he has photographed, few of the shots show any sense of involvement. Lieberman is almost always the detached observer. In some of the pictures you sense that the subjects recognise this and confront the camera, and the photographer, with uncompromising directness.

Lieberman, I guess, exhibits what Susan Sontag described as “the predatory side of photography” (On Photography) often shooting with an objectivity at odds with his involvement in and professed love for, the community.

I cannot remember ever being confronted with a work quite like this before. It is a documentation almost as obsessive as August Sanders photographic recording of “the German people”. Yet it differs from Sander‘s clockwork-like precision of pose and lighting — his people could have been department store dummies — in that the locations cross the community and the time the photographs were taken span forty years.

We meet one of Lieberman’s subjects (the Farm Boy, perhaps?) Billy Hammer at the age of thirteen, then 14, 18, on his wedding day, the birth of his first child, then at 29 and again at 44 a few years before he died. At least four of these
shots were taken in the same place with the subject standing in, essentially, the same pose.

The effect is uncanny, and ultimately rather pathetic. I felt like a voyeur, feeding on the private life of a person who went from a good looking kid, through a  handsome young father to a worn out belly-over-the-belt man to dead in less than forty years. If this is life on a farm in small town America. I
don’t want it.

At least Neighbors does provoke a reaction. Far too many coffee table photographic books do not. They’re full of pretty pictures, forgotten as soon as the cover is closed.

Neighbors isn’t like that. There are a number of photographs which stick in the mind, rather uncomfortably – the photograph of Billy Hammer on the dustjacket is one; another is of a farmer waiting with his lawyer for the outcome of a
meeting of his creditors, and the third is of the same man waiting while they appraise and value his property. They are powerful pictures which ram home the effect of rural crisis on people. And to my mind much more powerfu than any number of shots of dried up water holes, cracked earth or carcasses of dead cattle and sheep.

While some of the photographs do locate Scales Mound in the United States, a number of the portraits are placeless. They could just as easily be photographs of Australians, or Russians or Germans — and that again is rather unsettling.
Ordinary people are ordinary, regardless of where they are born.

Lieberman’s technique is virtually flawless; his prints are superb — even in reproduction; his sense of composition is, perhaps, not everything it could be, but for me the main drawback to Neighbors, is ultimately that it lacks passion. Archie Lieberman is too clinical and objective — it would be interesting to see what William Klein made of the same subject, for example – and for this reason the book misses out on greatness. But it is competent, and it is very interesting. It is also worth the $75.00 being asked for it.

Neighbors is still listed as being available on Amazon. My edition was printed in 1993.

KATIE MC LEAN: PRAISE

praise001The gallery at Alley Cats in Mudgee has an interesting exhibition by photographer Katie McLean, called “Praise” and subtitled “a photography exhibition in memory of Judith Fitzgerald”.

There are nineteen photographs in  the show – a mix of black and white and colour images – all of them beautifully staged and superbly photographed. The prints vary in price between $350 and $450 and with fourteen red spots, it is one of the most successful photographic exhibitions in Mudgee, in terms of sales, for a number of years.

Well worth a look. And there’s also some very interesting work on her web site http://www.entwinedphotography.com/

NIKON V1 IMPRESSIONS

lunapark-600At one time I lived very close to Sydney’s Luna Park and over the years I photographed the entrance way hundreds of times with a  variety of different cameras from Leicas to Box Brownies. The photograph above is a straight out of the camera jpg (it has only been reduced in size for the web) from the  10-30mm zoom (at 10mm) at f3.5 aperture, 100ISO, 1/400th shutter speed and spot metering.   The face was in  shadow and I think the camera handled the exposure, flare and detail quite well.

The V1 has a few quirks, but generally it is easy to handle and it is very portable. I haven’t been out without it since I acquired it. My two larger Nikons are languishing in their bag and are likely to remain so until I need to shoot for a big print or a lens that I don’t have for the V1.

DPII DISAPPEARS

My old-established web site dpii digital photography and imaging web site has disappeared into the aether. The ISP provider that I have been using for some years suddenly disappeared on April 9. All efforts to locate anyone connected with the company have failed, so i am working on migrating the site (in a modified form) to WordPress, mostly so that I can control my stuff from the one place.