The fugitive image
Posted: 30 Apr 2012 | By: Patricia Anderson - Editor
In the final years of school at Canberra High School, each art student (barely nine of us — art being dismissed as the choice of layabouts, misfits, the beard-sprouting and those of indeterminate sexuality) were supplied with Helen Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Between its pages was a black and white image of an unforgettable painting by Degas: Viscount Lepic and his Daughters Crossing the Place de la Concorde (1875) — “whereabouts unknown”.
In 2008, this writer was browsing the Hermitage collection online, and there it was — in colour! It’s caption said: “Formerly in the collection of Otto Gertenberg, later his daughter Margarete Scharf, Berlin. Transferred from Germany after World War II.” Clearly the spirit of glasnost had returned the painting to the public, but not to its owners. Part of the mystique of the work hinged on the way it behaved exactly like a photograph, with the scene flying apart as the cropped figures and one alert dog are captured at the moment of moving out of our view. Thus it is no surprise to find that Degas took up photography in 1895, pursuing it vigorously for five years to create an archive of which only fifty works exist today. All of this is merely a preamble to introduce the focus of our current issue: photography.
The word owes its origin to the Greek words ‘photos’ (light) and ‘graphein’ (to draw). The very first camera, the pinhole camera was created by Ibn Al-Haytham around 1000 AD, but the characteristics of light projection had been recognised by Aristotle as early as 330 BC, when he pondered the disc-like object the sun could project through a square hole.
It wasn’t until the early 1800s that the first practical application of its possibilities — to create a permanent and unchanging image — took place. It was called a Daguerreotype, after its French creator Louis Daguerre. By 1889, American inventor George Eastman had invented the box camera with a rolled film, which could be mass produced. By 1905, German optical engineer Oskar Barnak created the world’s first 35mm camera — the ‘Ur-Leica’. Then in 1948, Edwin Herbert Land, an American inventor and physicist, developed the first polaroid camera, which created ‘instant’ photography. Canon scientists invented the first digital electronic still camera in 1984, and in 1986 Kodak scientists developed the first megapixel sensor.
So much for the equipment. Who are the individuals who transformed these technologies into the distillation of unforgettable moments in mankind’s history with artistry and poetry? Who are those who extended the emotional and psychological range of the formerly elusive and transient into the durable and memorable.
One might think of Margaret Cameron, a photographer from England’s Victorian period, whose ethereal portraits, begun without training, rules or guidelines, unselfconsciously recorded family, relatives and friends.
And to briefly mention one of the most celebrated photographers of all, Henri Cartier-Bresson — who came to it by accident but who was called “the Tolstoy of photography”. While his work may have begun as un-nuanced documentary, it shifted incrementally to assume surreal elements. As Time’s art critic Richard Lacayo recently wrote: “As his biographer Pierre Assouline once put it … Cartier-Bresson used his camera ‘as a Geiger counter’, a machine to register the secret pulse of the world.”
Since photography became a portable affair and a truly democratic art form, we have been awash with images — often of a kind that bear direct witness to the lives and vicissitudes of the largest mass of humanity imaginable — which in previous times the historical records sailed straight past. For example, the works of Dorthea Lange, which witnessed and documented the Great Depression in America and the displaced farming families after the Midwest was reduced to a dustbowl, are an unforgettable example.
Our March/April issue focuses on a number of photographers in this country who have each added something recognisable and definable to the genre: George Schwarz, Marian Drewe, Pat Brassington, Bronek Kozka, Ben Ali Ong and Wend Lear. aAR also casts an eye over a dynamic collective of photographers whose handsome publication Oculi was launched in 2010 and showcases works from the archives of the Head On Photo Festival.
Finally, aAR is delighted to announce our newest venture, eBooks. Our first title, Luminous Landscapes, is available on Amazon. You can go directly to it at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B006POWJB8