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.
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I spent a fascinating few hours in SFMOMA a few years ago, thoroughly absorbed in a black and white photographic exhibition that included the f.64 group, a group of seven San Fran photographers, and Dorothea Lange – ‘The Crucial Years’ (SF Waterfront strike in 1934). A series of tiny photos all pinned to a board also intrigued me. I can well understand your interest and I thank you for sharing these images and quotations. The Holden project sounds fascinating!
I want to see your exhibition! The Holden project is very much like the “same place, different month” posts of yours that I’m enjoying so much.
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I can feel your delight and absorption with this art gallery Meg. The post is so well written and detailed, It was a pleasure to visit it through your eyes. I think Garry Winogrand has only got it half right, yes some photos do just show it like it is and, for me, are just a record of where I have been. But then many other photos definitely tell stories in a picture (one picture is worth a thousand words!!!)
Garry Winogrand has certainly copped it! Photos have also “told me what it looks like” on a number of occasions, especially when a flower close up reveals detail beyon the naked eye – like the throat of a greenhood orchid, or a schelhammera spurting pollen.
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This sounds like a brilliant exhibition. To see so much photography all in the one show – what an absolute truth. I disagree with Garry Winogrand too. Photos can tell stories brilliantly – as many of your examples show. There are those that say a photo that just shows what something looks like are, in a sense, failed photos. There is so much that can be said through photography.
Thanks for a very thought provoking post.
I’m delighted that you share my delight. It’s just occurred to me that all the memorable photos contained people (in fact most of them included people) and yet I rarely photograph people myself. Maybe a challenge for Warsaw. Watch out, old men playing the accordion in Nowy Świat!
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Sounds like a plan. I rarely photograph people either but you are right, a lot of those classic photos we look at with admiration now do have people in them.
Lucid Gypsy said:
Meg what a fascinating exhibition and you have described it so well, I feel I’ve learnt from you this morning. I totally disagree with Garry Winogrand though!
I spent ages at the exhibition. I was fascinated by so many things, including the technical language, none of which I comprehend: ambrotype, dry plate technique, auto type process, bromoil, platinum photo on BFK Rives paper. If only I had a techno mind!
It took a long time to write this post. I saw the exhibition on my first day prowling around Cairns. I disagree with Winogrand too: it’s the story that has the power, as your wordless Wednesday images demonstrate so well.