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The exhibition Joy before the object takes its title from a text written in 1928 by renowned German modernist photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch (1897-1966). The exhibition takes on board the concepts in Renger-Patzsch’s text and considers the repercussions of his claims today.

Renger-Patzch’s argument

Renger-Patzsch argued against the painterly aspirations of art photography in his time, suggesting they distracted from the real technological and objective possibilities of photography. He saw photographs that tried to ‘feign “art”’ (and by this he meant painting) as akin to ‘ruining one’s own technique with an alien method’. What he was referring to and critiquing was the soft-focus Pictorialist approach so prevalent in the early 20th century.

Instead, Renger-Patzsch rallied for photography’s innate – yet underused, he thought – capacity for providing new perspectives on the world, new visions of what was thought of as commonplace. He sought to make us see phenomena differently, without artificial influence; he believed the ‘splendid fidelity of reproduction’ was photography’s raison d’être, an intrinsic function of the medium, which good photographers must extract with their camera.

He wrote: ‘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. Nature, after all, is not so poor that she requires constant improvement. There is still room within that rectangle of shining bromide paper for new spatial and planar effects; many things still await the one who will recognise their beauty.’

Exploring Renger-Patzch’s ideas

Joy before the object does not claim that Renger-Patzsch’s argument was necessarily the best or only way of apprehending photographs, then or now. Nor does the exhibition suggest that his ideas have remained applicable throughout the 85 years since they were first proposed. Rather, Joy before the object uses the notions raised in the text to explore the complexity of so-called photographic objectivity (or ‘fidelity’) and what, in turn, it means to photograph objects. Indeed, the exhibition begs the question: what is a photographic object, anyway?

Photographs can be both representations of objects in the world and also objects in and of themselves. Conventionally, photography’s main purpose has been understood as serving to passively represent the world. Joy before the object proposes that photography inherently functions at a point between representation, abstraction and its own evolution. In this sense, artists take an active role when they employ photography, working to draw out positions in between and across these spheres.

The artworks selected for this exhibition range from early English photographer Roger Fenton’s 1850s documentation of the bust of Homer for the British Museum through to contemporary Australian artist Emma White’s 2011 work Still life with objects. All together, the exhibition includes more than 20 Australian and international photographers taken from the Gallery’s 4700-strong photography collection, their work spanning almost 150 years. All have employed numerous processes and taken varied approaches, whether consciously or not, to photography’s dynamic relationship with object-hood.

With this in mind, the exhibition raises questions around the supposed objectivity of photography and its relation to truth. Where is the line drawn between the physical object and its image? What role does the artist play in this operation? Is the subject/object divide so distinct, and how do viewers see a photograph: as manifestation or representation? These queries implicitly lead to a further destabilising of the way we regard and experience photographs, whether as fixed, changing, objective, deceitful; as depicting something or making that thing into something else, photographically.

Through these artworks, Joy before the object argues that photography has and continues to enable new possibilities for the shifting of perceptions, due to technological and social changes as much as the mutating state of the medium itself. This can manifest through scale, form, material or display, but also through altered understandings of what it means to create and behold an image.

Finally, this exhibition begs the question of whether the ‘fidelity’ Renger-Patzsch envisioned resonates today and, indeed, if it ever did. It asks whether the photographic objectivity he evoked can exist at all and, if so, what would it look like?

Issues for consideration

  • Consider the title of this exhibition. What does the curator want you to understand? Why do you think she chose these artists? What layers of meaning do the images bring to the exhibition both individually and as a group? Write a critique of the exhibition, considering the supporting text and the visual impact of the works.
  • Albert Renger-Patzsch aimed to provide a new vision of the world through photographic practice. Do you feel he achieved this intention? Research his body of work and compare his approach to his contemporaries working in photography. Does Renger-Patzsch reflect or react to art practice at the time? Were other artists working in different mediums considering similar ideas?
  • Discuss the meaning of truth through photography. How do we define truth? Do we as an audience assume the truth is presented to us in a photograph? How do the artists in this exhibition push the boundaries of what we assume?
  • Joy before the object proposes that photography inherently functions at a point between representation, abstraction and its own evolution. Do you agree or disagree with this notion? Using specific examples from the exhibition, present your point of view.