12 October, 2005

printed light

Australian National Gallery
Curated by Mark Henshaw
Until 7 November

Printed Light: photographic vision and the modern print

When the photograph first appeared in 1840 many artists believed it signaled their end. On seeing his first daguerreotype, French painter Paul Delaroche famously declared 'from today, painting is dead'. He could not have been more wrong. Instead of killing western art many believe the photograph actually released it from the chains of attempting to represent the world realistically, giving rise to such radical movements as Impressionism.

In Printed Light: photographic vision and the modern print Mark Henshaw, curator of International Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books at the National Gallery of Australia explores just one of photography's legacies; that of its influence on 20th century artists working in the print medium. Printed pictures using the techniques of woodcut, engraving, etching, and lithography have always been popular forms of visual art and communication, but the invention of photography altered the medium forever.

When walking through the exhibition the relationship between each work and its photographic underpinning manifests in varied ways. Most obvious is where the artist has done little more than reproduce the photographic image itself. The work of Peter Blake, who has enlarged some 19th century postcard erotica, is a case in point and illustrates this relationship by presenting the image itself as an object: one moment in history captured forever.

Others artists subvert, manipulate or appropriate the image. Best in this category is the work of 1960s pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi. His collages of popular images from magazines, films, posters, ads and sci-fi comics, provide a classically nostalgic example of the way the image can and has been used effectively to portray our society's obsessions with consumerism and celebrity.

Finally, at its most lateral, is where the relationship is based not on the photograph but in the photographic 'way of seeing'. Jennifer Bartlett's Untitled I, II, III [Graceland] 1979 and Liechtenstein's Haystack #3, #5, #6 1969 hang side by side and clearly reference Monet's famous haystacks. In these works Monet, who was born the same year as the photographic technique, is argued to have 'seen' like a photograph in attempting to document the effect of light at different times of day. Bartlett and Liechtenstein do so in print.

Henshaw has put together a fine selection of prints with which to compare, contrast and ponder the effects of the all-pervasive photograph. However, with works spanning the entire 20th century, the exhibition stops short of exploring any points of juxtaposition. Some reference to what has not been affected by the camera, or even what difference digital technology is now having, would have assisted our pondering.

In fairness, our own 'way of seeing' has probably been so influenced by the camera we could have trouble appreciating such a juxtaposition. Instead we wander through the Gallery filing photographic memories into the photo albums of our mind along with the rest of our experience.

Soli Middleby is a freelance writer and reviewer.

from artlook


Exhibition Introduction

Photography was invented in the 1840s and ever since then people have marvelled at its ability to capture life in all its manifest detail. Such is photography’s supremacy in this regard that it has become unquestionably the dominant image-making form of the 20th century.

The exhibition Printed light is not, however, about photography in its pure form. What it seeks to do, instead, is to examine how photographic material, and, in particular, how photographic ‘ways of seeing’, have influenced 20th-century artists who also work in the print medium. Some artists have actively set out to use, manipulate, appropriate and/or subvert photographic imagery in their work. For others, the influence of photography has been more subtle, more tangential. Perhaps, for them, it’s the way in which photographic framing has conditioned a particular way of seeing.

At one end of the spectrum are works, such as Jennifer Bartlett’s Untitled I, II, III 1979, which one would not at first glance associate with photography at all, while at the other are the photo-realist works of Chuck Close and Richard Estes. And, as Printed Light demonstrates, there is much that is fascinating in between.

Catalogue essay

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