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Focus works

Click the links to view each work in the collection, including an image and more information

Laurence Aberhart

The Egg, Albany, New York, 7 September 2010 2010

Since the late 1970s, Laurence Aberhart’s black-and-white contact prints have been made with a 19th-century ‘view’ camera that allows him to capture subtle and extraordinary detail. The Egg depicts a performing arts venue that is also a Brutalist architectural landmark. Aberhart’s image shifts our sense of the object away from its role as a functional building and towards a photographically abstract form. ‘What inherently interests me is the transitional; the pieces in our social landscape that were something once, aren’t that anymore, will be something different in the future, or may not exist,’ Aberhart said in 2011.

Issue for consideration

How has the artist captured the transitional in this image? Consider, in particular, the compositional elements or absence of elements in this environment. What does the term transitional mean to you? Create a series of images of your own based on your interpetation of this idea.

Walker Evans

Untitled 1973-74

Walker Evans is best known for his black-and-white documentary photographs, often made with a large-format camera. However, this work is an example of the artist’s use of the Polaroid format after the Polaroid company gave him, and many other artists, a camera to experiment with. With the new instant film technology Evans explored colour, form and context in a spontaneous way. This image of the artist’s foot shows his interest in playing photographically with the textures of flesh, carpet and cotton.

Issue for consideration

How is using a Polaroid camera different to other photographic techniques? Does the immediacy of this technique affect how you read the final image? How has Evans connected the viewer with this image? Experiment with using a variety of photographic techniques; those that produce immediate results such as the Polaroid and others that are more traditional. Compare the results. Which technique do you prefer, and why?

Albert Renger-Patzsch

Euphorbia grandicornis 1921-25

Renger-Patzsch’s disdain for the painterly style of what he called ‘artist-photographers’ led him to advocate for the objective possibilities of photographic technology. He argued that photography allows us to see things in a way that painting never could and that painterly aspirations had been ‘damaging’ to photographic achievement. ‘There is an urgent need to examine old opinions and look at things from a new viewpoint,’ he wrote. This photograph is a luscious example of an otherwise indifferent cactus, which Renger-Patzsch has treated in manner true to his theory.

Issue for consideration

There is an urgent need to examine old opinions and look at things from a new viewpoint. There must be an increase in the joy one takes in an object, and the photographer should become fully conscious of the splendid fidelity of reproduction made possible by his technique. – Albert Renger-Patzsch, 1928

Research photographic practice at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century and compare this to Renger-Patzch’s practice. What is Renger-Patzch saying about the world in this quote? Do you agree? What ‘old opinions’ is he referring to? How is his Euphorbia grandicornis an example of the ‘splendid fidelity of reproduction’?

Lynne Roberts-Goodwin

bad bird #5 2001-02

Lynne Roberts-Goodwin has undertaken various wildlife research trips to study and document birds of prey, migratory birds and endangered or quarantined species. For her Landings series the Sydney-based artist has photographed ornithological specimens, including reverse-portraits of birds. In these works, Roberts-Goodwin suppresses the common tendency to read portraits of animals anthropomorphically by hiding the bird’s face. She also emphasises the distinctive plumes through the use of metallic photographic paper and enlarged scale. We are compelled to consider the bird’s shape, colour and size, as well as what the photograph may not disclose of its subject.

Issue for consideration

What is your initial reaction to this work? How does the artist blur the line between documentary photography and art? What elements (including the title) give this photograph an enigmatic or ambiguous quality? Discuss what the photograph 'may not disclose of its subject’.

Catherine Rogers

Cups 2007
Plate on table edge 2007

Catherine Rogers’ The culture of the table series uses the camera to abstract the ornamental potential of functional domestic objects. Her images of teetering crockery exaggerate the techniques of 17th-century still-life painting. The series also acknowledges the first published photographic still life, William Henry Fox Talbot’s A fruit piece 1845. Rogers is interested in examining the nature of her medium, including the intellectual and practical aspects of early photographic history. By referencing Talbot she points to a lineage of photographers who have pushed the medium’s capabilities by depicting the inanimate and often banal.

Issue for consideration

What evidence do you find of the influence of A fruit piece in Rogers’ art practice? Why do you think she chose this particular work to re-image? How does her use of appropriation add meaning to the work? Develop a photographic body of work using an historical influence in a contemporary context.

Franz Roh

Untitled 1922-28

Franz Roh was a contemporary of Albert Renger-Patzsch and another, very different, early proponent of modernism. He believed images should transform the viewing experience and generate new ways of looking, notably through experimentation with photography’s possibilities. In this example, Roh placed a strip of film on a dynamic angle in the enlarger, leaving the edge visible. The tones were inverted and the image was printed as a negative. These innovative techniques deliberately reveal the image-making process. Roh wrote in 1930: ‘Photography is put to its best purpose… when it does not show things as they have been perceived for generations, but instead presents new approaches that are bolder and not yet exhausted.’

Issue for consideration

Compare and contrast the work of Franz Roh and Albert Renger-Patzsch. How did they both push the boundaries of photographic practice? Do you feel Roh has offered the audience a 'new way of looking’? Research the role of photography in modernism and explain why this medium offered great opportunities for the modernist artist.

Shōmei Tōmatsu

Bottle melted and deformed by atomic bomb heat, radiation and fire, Nagasaki 1961, printed 1974

This photograph depicts a beer bottle mutated by the 1945 atomic blast in Nagasaki. It is part of a series created by renowned photographer Shōmei Tōmatsu for the Japan Council Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs. The bottle has become starkly organic in its deformation, implying that the force and horror of the A-bomb is beyond representation. It also reveals the way objects and photographs possess a form of memory that humans can only observe. Tōmatsu makes the relation between objects, representation and photographic technology clear, while imbuing the image with its due pathos.

Issue for consideration

Look at the photograph without the title and describe what you see in detail. Now look at the title of the work. How does the title change the meaning of the work? How does your personal understanding of the world add another layer to the work? Discuss this photograph with other people from different generations and cultures. Compare your reactions and what the work means to each of you.

Ronnie van Hout

Untitled 1995

This photograph belongs to Ronnie van Hout’s series Mephitis (the Latin name for skunk). For this group of works, van Hout created small models and sets, which he then photographed. The slightly blurred focus makes it difficult to identify immediately that the figures are artificial. Macabre elements such as a decapitated head reveal the artist’s interest in the construction and destruction of life. He said in 1997: ‘I like the idea of the dead coming to life… The aim of taking photographs of miniatures was that you could show them to someone who would believe that they were the real thing. I thought that was pretty bizarre.’

Issue for consideration

Read the quote above and discuss whether van Hout has successfully achieved his intentions. How does the blurred focus contribute to the work?

Emma White

Still life with objects 2011

Emma White is a Sydney-based artist who works across sculpture and photography. Her practice explores the interplay between the two mediums as well as the boundaries between materiality, representation and form. The photograph depicts small colourful objects sculpted and photographed by the artist. The resulting image is then re-photographed to create an illusionary pictorial space. The photograph combines notions of two- and three-dimensionality, but it avoids aligning itself solely to either state. White’s multi-layered process of image production reflects on the history of still life in art while challenging the genre’s association with factual depiction.

Issue for consideration

How does White’s approach recall the history of still life? Can you see the influence of sculpture in her work? Discuss the role of photography as a medium in creating this image.

Francesca Woodman

from the Eel series, Rome 1977-78

Francesca Woodman was interested in exploring how aspects of the psyche can be rendered photographically. In this image, her headless figure slips in and out of register, on the verge of abstraction. Woodman was intrigued by the idea of flattening the body to fit the paper. By using her own body, Woodman positions herself as both object and subject. She is not engaged in self-portraiture in the conventional sense, but rather a visual process of dissolving or deconstructing the self.

Issue for consideration

How has the artist created a sense of abstraction? Does the use of photography, rather than another medium, enhance this effect? Woodman’s approach to the figure has been described as ‘becoming space, wallpaper, an angel, sand, or sculptural form, and in the process of appearing, disappearing, fragmenting or decaying’. Analyse this image while considering this point of view.