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The nature of looking

Peter Ireland takes a roving tour through the history of photography and the works in <EM>On Looking</EM>


<P><STRONG>From practical to pleasurable</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="263305"></P> <P>Looking is such an automatic function that we tend to be unaware of it. Acts of looking cover a wide spectrum too. Mostly, for practical reasons, the eyes function as a kind of radar to keep us safe - scanning foreground to horizon for pitfalls, wild animals, creditors, or former partners. Less practically, but perhaps more agreeably and certainly less urgently, we take pleasure in looking: a beautiful sunset, a grand building, the first sight of a new grandchild. </P> <P>Between these two poles of practical and pleasurable looking, there’s a fizzier territory that can perhaps best be described as motivated by human curiosity. This covers the sorts of dramatic spectacle the news industry feeds on - accidents, disasters, the weird - and those shadier aspects of the human condition that are surrounded by social prohibitions, the breaching of which involves a degree of guilt, marking us as voyeurs. </P> <P>While photographic studies of nudes continue a long tradition in art, their particular realism brings such subject matter much closer to what’s considered pornographic, where admiration of beauty has perhaps lesser weight in the equation than mildly lustful perving. Photography has not only made the pornographic more possible, it has also raised pertinent and persistent questions around the social boundaries of such subject matter.</P> <P><STRONG>‘Memory is our coherence’</STRONG></P> <P>Until photography was invented in the second quarter of the 19th century, both the nature of remembering and systems for recording memories were of a very different order. The Spanish film&shy;maker Luis Buñuel (1900-83) once said that ‘memory is our coherence’ - the truth of which is brought out, cruelly, in the various conditions of dementia. Identity - who we are - is defined largely by what is remembered. And this applies to tribes and nations as much as to individuals.</P> <P>From earliest times in human history, 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, when social groupings started forming, what gave them identity and bound them together was <EM>the story</EM>. This was a highly symbolic, mythical account of a people’s history and belief system, an oral form of remembering. (The Bible’s Old Testament in its early oral form, for example, can be seen as serving this function for Jewish people.) </P> <P>The earliest forms of pictorial remembering are often visual stories, for which we now lack knowledge of the intended plot. For example, it’s no longer known precisely why animals such as bulls were depicted in France’s Lascaux caves, painted about 30,000 years ago, although it’s likely there were connections with ritual, fertility, and food sources. Aboriginal cave paintings in Australia, made about 10,000 years earlier, depict similar imagery. Literary forms of remembering emerged in the Middle East and Egypt around 3,200 years ago with a system of hieroglyphs, which gradually transformed into the written languages we have today.</P> <P><STRONG>A new way of remembering</STRONG></P> <P>The invention of the printing press in the 15th century marked a turn away from visual remembering and towards written language. The tsunami of prints released by this new technology did, however, become a means for the illiterate, who continued to aurally absorb traditional stories about their origins, history, and beliefs, to reinforce their visual memories. Mostly religious in character, but also illustrative of common life and customs, these prints marked a departure from existing visual forms of remembering, such as paintings and drawings - unique objects that were not susceptible to wide circulation and, given their perceived value, were often confined to the libraries and galleries of the rich and powerful. Prints, by contrast, made of just ink and (still-scarce) paper, could be circulated widely, their relative cheapness an ally in the traffic of imagery. Print reproduction was therefore a key element in the spread of information and knowledge, and remained so for another 400 years until the invention of photography. </P> <P><STRONG>The invention of photography</STRONG></P> <P>Having a picture to hand saves us the trouble of remembering what it’s picturing - and there’s less chance of the remembered scene being distorted by intervening impressions. In prints of paintings and other hand-created images, however, the quality of the depiction depended on the skill of the artist, which built in a degree of distortion. Photography radically changed all this.</P> <P data-associrn="194780"></P> <P>Up until the 1700s, people generally had very little access to information about anything beyond the districts in which they lived. The majority lived in the countryside, so what they knew was mostly confined to the essentials of agriculture and religion. They looked at each other, their animals, the sky, their crops, and the stained-glass windows in the parish church. They were largely illiterate and never travelled more than a few kilometres from where they were born. Their looking was either practical or pleasurable; the vast in-between area relating to human curiosity lay unfulfilled for them - simply because a wider world was, literally, unknowable.</P> <P>A confluence of elements - scientific, industrial, and political - created the ‘modern’ world in the 1700s, and over the following 200 years the whole globe became knowable, in potential. It was the age of exploration, colonisation, the encyclopaedia, and revolutions: the Industrial Revolution (about 1760-1840) changed the world materially, and the French Revolution (1787-99) changed it politically and democratically. Knowledge, and the thirst for it, expanded exponentially. The existing recorders - the painters, drawers, and even the printmakers - couldn’t keep up, so in a sense the camera had to be invented. Not coincidentally, photography emerged when a movement known as realism was becoming the avant-garde mode in literature and the visual arts. Realism sought to capture the grittier details of daily life and human psychology, replacing the quest of centuries gone by for the ideal.</P> <P data-associrn="795538"></P> <P>And so, at last, there was imagery that people believed replicated truthfully what they saw. As colonisation expanded, photography brought the world to the salons and hamlets of Europe, and took Europe to all corners of the planet. The camera recorded this ‘progress’ with pride, and with curiosity, everything that was different. For the first 50 years of photography, most photographers were professionals who saw their business as recording, and for many of them that meant studio portraiture. Until then, being depicted was the province of the rich and powerful, who could hire the services of painters and illustrators. Photography made portraiture accessible to all but the very poor. For most, their family tree was no longer an oral account, but a photograph album. </P> <P>Formal studio portraits, such as the image of a M&#257;ori child by the Burton Brothers, are very common, but they raise an uncommon amount of debate these days as to their purpose and significance. The fact that so many are anonymous is seen by some as evidence of P&#257;keh&#257; exploitation for the exotic-postcard and tourist markets. But then, a proportionate number of studio portraits of P&#257;keh&#257; are similarly anonymous. We have very little hard evidence as to the actual human and financial transactions involved in this portraiture, but what we do know is that, today, without these images both M&#257;ori society and P&#257;keh&#257; culture would be <EM>much the poorer</EM>.</P> <P><STRONG>The rise of the amateur photographer</STRONG></P> <P>Camera technology advanced, so that by the end of the 1800s, small, easy-to-use cameras were available. And so began the rise of the amateur photographer, which further radically changed the nature of looking. By World War I (1914-18), the early excitement over what photography might reveal about the wider world had waned, and amateur photographers turned their attention inwards to more personal views of their families, homes, and the recreations afforded by growing leisure time. </P> <P>The photographic work of Levin-based Leslie Adkin covered a wide range, but his most engaging images focus on his extended family, mostly to record events such as his children’s first days at school, or depicting their leisure time. Work such as his marks the beginning of the snapshot tradition - featured for several generations in albums, and now more likely to be found on laptops and phones. Adkin had a fine instinct for the moment and a fine eye for composition.</P> <P data-associrn="1040488"></P> <P><STRONG>The rectangular world</STRONG> </P> <P>Impressions of the world strike the retinas of professionals and amateurs alike as circular, yet our looking has been conditioned by the almost invariable rectangle of the photograph. This mental framing device is governed by rules of composition - established in the 18th century - that we have learned to impose on the world, almost in defiance of our physical make-up. There have been schools of photography, such as the Russian constructivist movement, which began after World War I, and the ‘new objectivity’ of the 1920s and 30s, which made a virtue of this framing fiction, and in turn influenced the milieus of film and design.</P> <P>In around 1940, the war brought a number of experienced photographers from Europe to New Zealand, among them the Czech Frank Hofmann. Hofmann was trained by members of the Prague Photographic Society in the 1930s. For Hofmann and his fellow new objectivitists, the actual subject matter was less important than the formal structure of the image - a strong connection with contemporary design.</P> <P><STRONG>‘The decisive moment’</STRONG></P> <P>The camera’s speed since the early 20th century has allowed the capture of moments so brief they hardly register on the eye - what famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) called ‘the decisive moment’. Some photographers have become well known for cultivating an alertness such that they were able to pin down, and even anticipate, telling moments that the rest of us would never notice. Their looking is of a highly developed order, and their work is an incentive for each of us to become more aware of the world’s diverse dynamic; the environment we may inhabit, but whose richer details we fail to notice. </P> <P data-associrn="44602"></P> <P>Peter Black's sharply observed and very amusing photograph <EM>Great South Road, Auckland, 1981</EM> illustrates this point well: a man on the left - the likely installer of the image on the window to the right - is changing into or out of his sneakers from, or into, his work gumboots, and striking almost the exact pose of the cartoon figure in the window. Formally, the various planes of the image are ‘held in place’ by the white post in the foreground, which frames the human element, and the vertical window support to its right, which frames the cartoon element.</P> <P data-associrn="40017"></P> <P><STRONG>The world as it is</STRONG></P> <P>Photography was first used simply as a recording device, but early in its history a particular mission developed, later termed the ‘documentary style’, whereby certain photographers used the medium to highlight inequalities within the human condition, and to espouse causes that might alleviate poverty and injustice. This endeavour was part of the 19th century’s growing commitment to socialist philosophy, which reached its full flowering in the middle of the 20th. It continues to the present, more often focusing on such issues as the despoliation of the planet. This may be a ‘looking’ we would be uncomfortable sharing, but it’s further evidence of photography’s sometimes-fierce commitment to the world as it is, not as it’s wished to be. </P> <P data-associrn="653092"></P> <P>For at least three decades now, Wayne Barrar has recorded unruly nature being tamed - not always without adverse consequences - by human intervention, and as the planet increasingly demonstrates human-related environmental stress, his work contributes an added urgency to concerns about the way we try to dominate the landscape, using it for ends that run counter to nature’s sustainability. He’s neither a preacher nor a crusader, simply a committed recorder tapping us alI gently on the shoulder.</P> <P>The documentary style has been the most conspicuous and crusading aspect of photography’s close interest in and involvement with what concerns human beings. A quieter, and more recently developing aspect, has been an intense scrutiny of the very processes of looking. This ranges from the photographer observing people in general - crowd behaviour - to observing their own perception of how they look at life; as it appears, and, importantly,<EM> as it might be photographed</EM>. These self-reflective, insider views extend still further our own knowledge of and engagement with the world.</P>
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Unknown, Untitled, circa 1910, postcard,
Purchased 1996.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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American Photographic Company (Auckland), Maori child, circa 1869-1876, black and white photograph
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Leslie Adkin, "Cherry Ripe" and the "Page Boy", November 1907. From the album: Photograph album; 1907 - 1909; Adkin, Leslie, 1907, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Gift of Derek Noble, 1997.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Frank Hofmann, Diving tower, Prague, circa 1936, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 2010 with the assistance of Andrew and Jenny Smith.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Peter Black, Great South Road, Auckland, 1981, 1981, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Gift of the artist, 1983.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Glenn Busch, Warren Allis, scalder and plucker, poultry abattoir, Christchurch, 1982. From the series: Working men, 1982, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 1983.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Wayne Barrar, New forest, Branch River, Marlborough, 1987, 1987, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print,
Purchased 2002.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz