‘Fixed Images, Unfixed Meanings’

Photography - Real and Imagined, Thames & Hudson, Australia and New Zealand, 2023


Photography – Real and Imagined interrogates the proposition that photographs are either grounded in reality – a record, a document, a reflection of the world – or the product of imagination, storytelling and illusion. On occasion, they can be both. In this publication, 295 photographs from the National Gallery of Victoria, by Australian and international photographers, are richly illustrated and explored through 21 themes, including light, movement, narrative, conflict, work, play, and death. Spanning the 1840s to the current day, the works in Photography: Real and Imagined are an exploration of the past, present and future of photography, and a celebration of more than five decades of collecting photography at a major art museum. The photos, selected from the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries, are divided into thematic groupings such as: environment; arrival and departure; built; science and the archive; war, protest and propaganda; work and recreation; selling the dream; storytelling and narrative; Surrealism; sensuality; Identity; and death. Photographs are uniquely examined in short texts by NGV curators Susan van Wyk and Maggie Finch and local and international authors Kyla McFarlane, Astrida Neimanis, Charmaine Toh, Robert Zeller, Patrick Pound, Sophia Cai, Claire G. Coleman, Jennifer HIggie, Elsa deCourcy and Helen Ennis. The book also includes three major essays including an introductory essay by Susan van Wyk; a text by Susan Bright examining the idea of the photograph as a document of the ‘real’; and a piece by David Campany, ‘Fixed Images, Unfixed Meanings’, exploring the imaginative capacity of photography.

 

Fixed images, unfixed meanings

David Campany

There are any number of reasons why a gallery or museum might want to acquire photographs. As part of an art collection. As part of a design collection. As a way of marking, commemorating or even questioning historical events. As documentation of other works in its collection. As examples of commerce. As legal evidence. As records of people. As examples of exceptional image making, or of plainly typical image making. The photographs may have been made with the institution or collection in mind, or they may not have. Acquisitions can be made for several overlapping reasons, perhaps well defined, perhaps less so. These days most established galleries and museums have cross-referenced and keyworded databases of their photographic holdings, through which potential frames of reference or use can be determined. Photographs tend to accrue a lot of keywords.

I mention this to begin with because such plurality combined with unpredictable possibility is a condition peculiar to photography, a medium of which we ask so many different things. Moreover, while it might be a way of capturing and fixing appearances, photography struggles to fix meanings in any permanent sense. If a collection lost the various documents, records and keywords it appends to its photographs, could we know for sure what to make of them? Probably not, for they would be returned to their essential ambiguity. Of course, at any given moment it might seem pretty obvious what the significance of a photograph is, but the changing times and shifting concerns through which any photograph passes in its archival life tells us that nothing stays quite the same. Does an institution collect in order to fix meanings, fix histories, or is it open to the idea that this is beyond its capability? This could well be the most profound question affecting museums, galleries and collections today. So, what follows here is a set of reflections upon this question, seen through a number of photographs from the NGV Collection.

Let’s begin with something seemingly obvious. Alfred Stieglitz’s The steerage, 1907, an image which, by 1979 when it was acquired by the NGV, was about as canonical as any photograph could be. Stieglitz has been positioned as a sort of father of modern North American photography, and The steeragewas his emblematic image, discussed in hushed but exulted tones as a bravura formal organisation of real space into flat pictorial space, without sacrificing the realist detail. Stieglitz and his camera are looking across and down from an upper deck of the Kaiser Wilhelm II en route across the Atlantic from New York to Germany. The image frames both an upper deck and the lower ‘steerage’ deck, where huddled third-class passengers are making the crossing in poor conditions. The image is full of social information, so it could be considered and used as a documentary record. Stieglitz, however, preferred the formal language of high modernism, encouraging a response to The steerage’s formal organisation of lines and planes into a modern picture.

The NGV’s print of The steerage is a gravure. Stieglitz has been a figure renowned in fairly equal measure for his own photographic art; for his canniness as a gallerist and publisher in early twentieth-century New York; and for the sharp revisions in attitude that he made to both. He hedged his bets between the wall and the page as sites for photography, a medium that can belong equally well to both. He set up galleries but also finely printed journals, notably Camera Work (1903–17). He often found that the short runs of prints made for the pages of Camera Work, in continuous tone techniques such as gravure and collotype, were superior to the artists’ darkroom prints of the same images. At times, Stieglitz took to exhibiting these prints that had been intended initially for inclusion in his journal. Once the works had been framed and placed on the wall of his gallery, any easy distinction between publication and exhibition was blurred. Modern photography would belong to both page and wall, although rather more to the page, at least until the late 1960s, when it really began to be championed as an exhibitable art in major museums and galleries.

The NGV’s acquisition of The steerage in gravure came four years after it had featured in one of the defining essays of postmodern photographic theory, ‘On the invention of photographic meaning’, by the artist and writer Allan Sekula.1 Here, The steerage is contrasted with another image of people making the transatlantic crossing, by Lewis Hine. Stieglitz was a self-declared ‘artist’ and his photograph was soon inserted into the art history of photographic modernism. Hine’s photograph was made and used in the context of social documentary and was later shifted into the museum. Rather than assuming there are inherent characteristics that made the Stieglitz image ‘art’ and the Hine a ‘document’, Sekula takes himself and the reader step by step through the different discursive and institutional positions given to each. Both images can be understood as artworks and as documents, and where the emphasis falls is largely down to the way the images are contextualised and presented.

This dualism is at the core of nearly all the shades of debate about photography’s merit as art, a debate made rich and strange by the fact that photography’s triumph in art came through its flirtation with its status as document, with science, with automatism, with anonymous vernacular practices, and with other modes of authorial and artistic erasure. Just about all the vanguard art of the last century walked or erased the line between work of art and document, and this is why photography became so central. It became an art at a time when art was questioning its own identity, limits and place in society. Reflecting on the relation between documents and artworks in 1928, the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin assembled a list of thirteen propositions formulated as binary pairs:

I           The artist makes a work.

The primitive expresses himself in documents.

II          The artwork is only incidentally a document.

No document is as such a work of art.

III         The artwork is a masterpiece.

The document serves to instruct.

IV        On artworks, artists learn their craft.

Before documents, a public is educated.

V         Artworks are remote from each other in their perfection.

All documents communicate through their subject matter.

VI        In the artwork content and form are one: meaning.

In documents the subject matter is dominant.

VII       Meaning is the outcome of experience.

Subject matter is the outcome of dreams.

VIII      In the artwork, subject matter is a ballast jettisoned during contemplation.

The more one loses oneself in a document, the denser the subject matter grows.

IX        In the artwork, the formal law is central.

Forms are merely dispersed in documents.

X         The artwork is synthetic: an energy center.

The fertility of the document demands: analysis.

XI        The impact of an artwork increases with viewing.

A document overpowers only through surprise.

XII       The virility of works lies in assault.

The document’s innocence gives it cover.

XIII      The artist sets out to conquer meanings.

The primitive man barricades himself behind subject matter.2

For all the internal complexity and despite the fact that they are not entirely consistent, these binaries express the idea that the artwork and the document may coexist but will remain irreconcilable. Did Benjamin have in mind two separate and distinct categories of object, or, more radically, was he proposing that ‘art’ and ‘document’ might be two potentials of the one object or medium? Photography has made its strongest claim to art not by choosing between these oppositions but by insisting on having it both ways, putting itself forward as the medium best placed to dramatise the tensions between work of art and document. This was recognised in an NGV statement on the founding of its Photography department: ‘Because photographs can possess an aesthetic and historical value, it is often difficult to decide whether a particular photograph should be gallery or library material.’3

It goes without saying that any photograph of sea passage or disembarkation is going to have its own complex set of resonances for an Australian audience. Indeed, to the Stieglitz we could add David Moore’s Migrants arriving in Sydney, an image made in 1966, just a year before the Photography department was established at the NGV. Moore was on assignment for National Geographic, where this image of passengers on board the Galileo Galilei from Italy was first published. Initially it was titled ‘European migrants arriving in Sydney’. In reality, two people to the right of Moore’s intentional or accidentally Classical framing were from Lebanon and Egypt, while the group on the left was the returning Imbruglia family, from Australia. The image was taken and first printed in colour but later converted to black and white. For a while, the facts didn’t trouble the myth, and the image was regularly celebrated as an Australian national symbol of immigration from Europe. Today, however, these slippages, transformations and misattributions have become part of the biography of the photograph.4

The images by Stieglitz and Moore began their lives on the page, migrating to the wall and to institutional collections at different times, and for different reasons. Stieglitz’s journal Camera Work was in some ways a throwback to the 1840s–80s, the early decades of photographic publishing. It wasn’t until the 1880s, with the invention of halftone printing, that text and image could be reproduced on the page together, in one technique. Before that, darkroom prints had to be either pasted to the page laboriously or converted to engravings or woodcuts for printing alongside text. Once halftone became the norm, with its cruder and less nuanced tonal quality, those older books of ‘tipped-in’ plates became quite sought after. In fact, they were the beginnings of the collector market for photography, which emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. For example, Giorgio Sommer’s quietly evocative images from around 1873, of preserved figures recovered in Pompeii from the ash produced by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, were made for inclusion in commercial books appealing to historians and archaeologists, but also to wealthy travellers on the extended European ‘grand tour’. While some copies of Sommer’s books survive, many were taken apart to sell the images individually. The NGV has a print of the best-known Sommer photograph, Human imprint, Pompeii, 1873.

Much of the most important photographic work, from all fields, was made for books. Moreover, photographic work often had, and still can have, its most significant impact in book form. Many of the great photographic works of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries had not just appeared in books; they were conceived as books, carefully sequenced, designed, scaled and printed, meeting audiences far beyond the spaces of exhibition. Of course, any museum or gallery collection of photography now includes key publications past and present, and the NGV has many.

Germaine Krull’s publication, Étude de Nu (‘Nude Studies’, 1930, is a ribbon-tied portfolio of unbound prints, as easy to look through in the hands, like a book, as to exhibit on the wall. Based in Paris, Krull was one of the most widely published photographers in Europe in the 1930s. Her varied images – everything from documentary and photojournalism, to staged images accompanying fiction writing, to fashion, portraiture and architecture – blurred any easy distinction between art and commercial practice. She was so versatile and worked across so many fields that for decades she was impossible to classify. Today, that very elusiveness – of modern photography itself, as much as of Krull’s work – is making her a celebrated figure, almost a century after her most productive years.

Part of the narrative of the NGV’s Photography collection, told in previous publications, concerns a fact-finding mission undertaken by its first photography curator, Jennie Boddington. She visited several museums, galleries and photographic collections beyond Australia. Upon her return, she wrote:

My ideas about the running of my department are radically changed since spending nearly four weeks in [New York’s] Museum of Modern Art … I believe that for some time in the future immediate priority and all possible energy should be given to the acquisition of important overseas material, remembering that ours is the only museum in Australia with a consistent policy of international collecting, and that effort in the initiation and mounting of exhibitions can be saved by showing some of the best works we have already purchased.5

Certainly, MoMA had made an unusually early commitment to the medium, collecting it across all departments, not just Photography. The image maker most closely identified with MoMA is Walker Evans, and the NGV holds a substantial number of his works. In 1930, a year after its founding, MoMA acquired its first photograph at the behest of its department of Painting & Sculpture. It was made by Evans and depicts a sculpture by another artist, and was not listed under Evans’s name as a work of photographic art. In 1933, Evans was commissioned by MoMA’s Architecture department to photograph nineteenth-century houses, and an exhibition of these prints was presented in its Architecture Room. In 1935, Evans was commissioned to photograph the works displayed in MoMA’s African Negro Art exhibition. These were published uncredited in a catalogue of the show and printed as a teaching portfolio. It was not until 1938 that Evans had a solo show at MoMA completely under his own name, but it was still two years before the museum had a photography department as such. At the time, the museum was undergoing expansion, and Evans’s show actually took place in temporary galleries in the basement of the Rockefeller Center. He hung the 100 images himself, framing some works and gluing others directly to the wall. But what survives and has influenced countless generations is his book American Photographs, published by MoMA on the occasion of the show. It was not a catalogue (thirty-three pictures in it were not in the exhibition) but a work in its own right, carefully sequenced and designed. One image that was in the show and book, and which is also in the NGV Collection, is Allie Mae Burroughs, wife of a cotton sharecropper, Hale County, Alabama, 1936. It has become something of a symbol of Evans’s direct and acute observational work, as well as an icon of modern photography, and a popular visual shorthand for ‘America in the 1930s’, but even this apparent example is more complicated. Evans actually made four portraits of Allie Mae Burroughs, all of which are in circulation. He was working at the time for the US government (the Resettlement Agency, later renamed the Farm Security Administration) and his images entered the public domain, eventually being housed at the Library of Congress. To this day, anyone can request a print, for a small fee. The service is now digital, but the fibre-based darkroom prints were of fine quality for many years. In American Photographs, the image was simply titled Alabama cotton tenant farm wife. Three years later, an alternate portrait of Burroughs, looking slightly less stern, was published in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), in an uncaptioned image sequence set apart from the writer James Agee’s episodic, vivid and experimental account of three tenant farmer families. Agee changed the name ‘Burroughs’ to ‘Gudger’, introducing an unsettling level of fiction into the report. Although there were opportunities, Evans had very few exhibitions in his life, concentrating on book and magazine work. It was only in the period briefly before his death in 1975 (the year Boddington visited MoMA) that prints by Evans began to be acquired by collectors and institutions. The NGV’s print was printed around 1975.

I could go on with these kinds of complicated, fascinating and surprising examples. Nevertheless, I hope I have made it clear how photography is so deeply marked and characterised by instabilities in its material form, titling, captioning, provenance, context and meaning. In the end these instabilities are not really ‘problems’, although they probably once were for departments of photography that were set up to stabilise and give some kind of concrete shape to a canon and history of photography. Today however, ‘canon’, ‘concrete shape’ and ‘singular history’ are seen as problems. The aim now is to challenge or undermine the canon, presenting various narratives rather than a master history, and suspending the very idea of a concrete shape. Photography, a promiscuous, mercurial and elusive medium that could never really be defined or contained, finds itself centrestage once again. It is the complicated and conflicted stories of so many of the photographs in the NGV Collection that are its treasure.

Notes

[1]           Allan Sekula, ‘On the invention of photographic meaning’, Artforum, vol. 13, no. 5, Jan. 1975, p. 37.

2          Walter Benjamin, ‘Thirteen theses against snobs’, in One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott & Kingsley Shorter, Verso, London, 1979, pp. 66–7. Why thirteen? Benjamin makes light of the arbitrariness by quoting Marcel Proust: ‘Thirteen – stopping at this number I felt a cruel pleasure’.

3          Isobel Crombie, ‘Introduction’, in Isobel Crombie & Susan van Wyk, Second Sight: Australian Photography in the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, p. 6.

4           For example, the exhibition Australian Vernacular Photography at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (8 Feb. – 18 May 2014), presented Moore’s photograph in the context of its complex story.

5          Crombie & Wyk, p. 9.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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