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Photography is a “crystal clear window on the world.” (information panel)

Photos capture “the decisive moment” (Henri Cartier-Bresson)

“Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event, as well as the precise organisation of forms which give the event it’s proper expression.” (Henri Cartier-Bresson)

Photographs provoke “narratives beyond the frame” (information panel)

“Photos don’t tell stories: they show you what something looks like.” (Garry Winogrand)

After strolling the esplanade and booking a reef trip, I went into the icy cool of the Cairns Regional Art Gallery, not expecting the treats that lay in store. I spent a couple of hours looking at the history of photography, being introduced to processes I’d never heard of and charmed by the many different artistries of photography. There were the documenters, the impressionists, the social commentators. I made copious notes of names to follow up, and photos to admire at greater leisure, and quotes to contemplate or argue with.

The highlights were many, and in many modes.

Manhatta is a short documentary film directed by painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand, interleaved with quotes from Walt Whitman, The leaves of grass. If you’re interested, you can have a look at it on YouTube to savour the motion, the extreme angles and the Whitman quotes. (https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=qduvk4zu_hs)

I’m always interested in the way artists pursue and shape their subject, and series hold a particular appeal, beginning with Monet’s haystacks and Hokusai’s views of Mt Fuji. August Sander had a life project: he wanted to produce a “typological (photographic) catalogue of German people”, in categories such as farmer, women, artists, the disabled and disenfranchised. Americans Walker Evans and Arthur Rothstein documented “the rural poor” during the depression, “sucking a sad poem right out of America onto film” (Jack Kerouac). In 1970, Robert Rooney put dots on a transparency, which he then placed over a map. He moved a Holden around to these random places and photographed it at different times of day, creating Holden Park 1 and Holden Park 2.

Then there were the abstractions and the staged photos. Imogen Cunningham’s Unmade bed looks about as arranged as an unmade bed can be, like a sculpture. Weegee’s photo of the encounter between two high society ladies and a drunk was very definitely posed: the drunk was paid and pushed into the encounter, so the story goes.

Then there were five special photos that really lodged in my memory for a variety of reasons. Olga Winston Link’s Hawksbill swimming hole has wonderful zigzagging diagonals and contrasting dark and light in contrasting textures, and it captures the immense joie de vivre of the swimmers, bringing together the industrial and the human.

Horst B Horst’s Carl Erickson drawing Gertrude Stein and Horst (1946) links the three people with a masterful line from Horst through Stein to Erickson’s hand. If this is an early selfie, I am in awe. The composition and the eye focus of each subject is superb, as is the balancing of the heaviness of books against the light from the window and the dog.

David Moore’s Redfern interior (1949) shows three generations in three different intimate moments. The young woman is concentrated on the baby, two dark heads together. The older woman is deep in thought, not altogether pleasantly, thinking about, maybe, the implications of this new life in an already stretched household. The little girl is holding her doll, almost imitating her mother, but she is also trying to connect with the grandmother, and knowing intuitively something of her concern. This is really capturing “the decisive moment” as Henri Cartier-Bresson calls it, for three people in one photo.

Robert Capa’s French mistress of a German soldier being marched through town (1944) tells a savage story of disapproval and group hostility, with a touch of schadenfreude, if you look at the expression on the women’s faces. In this case there really is a “narrative beyond the frame.”

Arthur Rostein’s Oklahoma migrants (1936) is beautifully arranged, faces framed by the car window. These are the people John Steinbeck writes about so movingly in The grapes of wrath, victims of nature and the economy, and yet retaining dignity.