Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Lily Brik by Alexander Rodchenko

Perhaps the greatest of all Alexander Rodchenko's photomontages is the one that he made in 1925 for the Lengiz bookstore where Lily Brik is shown yelling (in Russian!) Lengiz - books in all branches of knowledge.

I thought that you'd enjoy seeing Rodchenko's preparatory photograph. If any graphic designer wants instant inspiration consult all the books available on this great Russian pioneer of constructivist design and modernist photography. He's the one (to quote a comment by an artist we all know)!

Monday, 30 August 2010

The Self-portrait of Sunil Azariah

I noted in my previous blog that I would post a reproduction of the Self-portrait that Sunil Azariah made at his Auckland home, probably early in 1979. The original transparency has not yet been traced so I have included a scan that his mother has provided from the vintage cibachrome print.

Interior based self-portraits were not common in our photographic history until the innovation of compact 35mm cameras during the late 1970s. Cameras like the Olympus Mju and the Polaroid SX70 altered the prevalence of self-portraits.

I was wondering how to account for the image's appearance since I have not been able to study the original transparency. I think that Sunil is likely to have been using Kodachrome, which was a daylight transparency emulsion. It is a slow daylight film so is almost always used outdoors with natural light. I think that the light on the right is supplied by a incandescent lamp, whereas the blue light at left is from a gel-covered spotlight.

Also, I think the camera is mounted on a tripod at a raking angle and that a cable release has been used for the shutter. If anyone knows more can they please contact me?

Sunil Azaraia was born in November 1957 and he passed away suddenly in August 1979.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The Little Red Writing Book and discovering a wonderful Self-portrait by Sunil Azariah

I have been reading Mark Tredinnick's succint publication The Little Red Writing Book (UNSW Press, Sydney, 2006). It has a memorable Preface quoted from Miguel Cervantes's Don Quixote:

Do but take care to express yourself in a plain, easy Manner, in well-chosen, significant and decent Terms, and to give an harmonious and pleasing Turn to your Periods: Study to explain your Thoughts, and set them in their truest Light, labouring as much as possible, not to leave 'em dark nor intricate, but clear and intelligible: Let your diverting Stories be express'd in diverting terms...

What a good invocation for clarity and insight.

I was visited a few days ago by the mother of Sunil Azariah, a young New Zealand photographer who died tragically at 21 years old in August 1979. She asked me if anyone would be interested in his photographs. I was immediately interested when she showed me a reproduction of the innovative Self-portrait that he made during the last year of his life.

Mrs Azariah is currently trying to find the original transparency so that it can be reproduced on this blog. Sunil periodically assisted with the printing of Brian Brake's cibachrome prints at Viko, a local photographic printing specialist company. Brian wrote a moving valedictory comment that accompanies the four reproductions of Sunil's photographs published in the March 1980 issue of Photo + Audio (volume 1, number 10, page 26-27).

From the Self-portrait included there, it is obvious to me that Sunil created a striking and close-up image of himself by using coloured lights as in-fill. I remembered the Self-portraits that Lucas Samaras was then making with the novel Polaroid SX70 material. I tried to think of any local camera artist who was involved in such self-portraiture using expressive colour - the work that Christine Webster made a few years later comes to mind.

Sunil Azariah was only beginning to discover what his talent for photography was. His Self-portrait reminded me what his early death really means - a promising photographer whose life as an artist ended much too soon. When we track down the transparency I will be able to show you the significance of this one image. I have quoted before that saying of Vladimir Nabokov: Speak Memory.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The 1962 portraits of Dame Edith Sitwell by Sir Cecil Beaton

Edith Sitwell (1887-1964) first met Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) on 7 December 1926 at the home of Allannah Hooper, a mutual friend who was a maven of London’s ‘high society.’ It was a fateful meeting because the photographs that Beaton made of Sitwell later in 1926, then in 1927 and 1931, brought them both much fame. Beaton created jazz-age portraits of Edith that visually alluded to the 19th century's Pre-Raphaelite dreamy femininity as best seen in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's own amazing drawings and paintings.

The portraits that he took in 1926 and 1927 were all prefabricated set-ups prepared in dimly lit interiors. During December 1926, the first group of portraits occurred in Beaton’s London studio, while during the following year he travelled to the Sitwell’s residence in northeast Derbyshire. Anthony Powell considered the family's ancestral seat as being positively "sinister". It was certainly a melancholy house thought to be inhabited with as many ghosts as the residents. To visitors like D.H. Lawrence, Renishaw Hall seemed like a desert island populated by the family's renowned past.

For his 1927 portraits, Beaton swathed Edith, as well as her fey brothers younger brothers Osbert (1892-1969) and Sacheverell (1897-1988), in slimy oil cloths. He then further draped her like a supine muse, with either an 18th century brocaded damask dress or in a huge Lurex silver silk cape, while at the same time lying recumbent on the black and white marble tiled floor with Christmas lilies strewn over her torso.

This campy tableau was tres exotique for English photography of the period and was almost Orientalist in its attitude. Yet, it was not Eastern in any way. Instead it comes across like an updated version of English Victorian medievalism. The theatrical pose and attire made Sitwell appear like a spooky and ethereal refugee from some early painting by Rossetti. The people who saw these portraits in magazines did not recognise Beaton's homage, they simply thought he was being dreadfully modern and wonderfully shocking.

Sitwell appeared both dreamlike and comatose. With the whitest of white tones of pan-cake powder, and both arms articulated in the manner of a votive female oracle. This attitudinising totally suited Edith’s being, which she always toned up in order to slaughter audiences with her spoken performance attuned by her aristocratic hauteur.

Naturally, I have always adored Sitwell’s appearance while also knowing that the English now regard her work as belonging among the more self-serious of their 20th century poets. Her odes appear somewhat stultifying and indulgent and can come across as intentional self-caricature. Oddly, their heady languor makes them seem even more contemporary in spirit, nowadays.

Edith's spoken voice was like a cross between the dulcet clarity of Her Royal Highness The Queen Mary and the ultra-mannish and masculine tone of the Duchess of Windsor. Listen to Sitwell’s brilliant tonal control in the performance of Sir William Walton’s Façade. It is as if she is giving orders to an audience that dares not miss one single word:

“I am not eccentric. It is just that I am more alive than most people are. I am an unpopular electric eel set in a pond of goldfish”. (Edith Sitwell, quoted in Life magazine, 4 January 1963)

I reproduce here the 1962 portraits that Cecil Beaton made of the aging Edith Sitwell. They are among the finest portraits of any English artist, especially someone who was as heroically individual as she was. Terrifying to behold on stage, as well as in person, Edith sometimes came across to friends who visited her at home as a mild and timid person. Dame Edith was a superb contradiction of outré confidence and stage panache.

Wearing her black ostrich feather turban faced with diaphanous organza, she welcomed Beaton into her apartment at Greenhill in Hampstead. She had commissioned portraits from him to mark her 75th birthday. She knew that they would be published internationally and would create an instant sensation. They did and you can see why. She is performing her eccentric fame for the camera and is much more beautiful at 75 than she was at 25.

Writing afterwards to Beaton, she commented: “It is such a comfort not to appear as a cross between a turkey that has been insufficiently fattened up for Christmas and an escapee from Broadmoor.” (Quoted in Hugo Vickers, Edith Sitwell, 1985, page 457).

From my perspective, these are three superb portraits of a person who is both a leading artist and a unique personality, who could play like a child in front of Beaton's camera while being utterly confident that the results would shock the public. These are portraits to return to and be fascinated by.

Did you ever see aquamarine rings ever worn with such aplomb? Will you ever see jewellery presented with such a willful affectation? Dame Edith Sitwell’s mode of wearing rings is without equal. It makes Dame Elizabeth Taylor look like someone who simply supports a diamond’s extensive number of carats, admittedly to wonderful effect. It takes extreme skill to wear four huge rings and make them become greater personal emblems than any medal could ever be.
Dame Edith lived with the Queenly attitude of her own unconventional style. Just lifting her fingers to point could have been equated with a physical workout. The gems are such huge stones.

On her luggage label she had printed a yellow label that read:

Her rings were never kept in her luggage.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Photography in a frame versus photography on a page

I was eager to see the World Press Photo 2010 exhibition currently on display in the Lippincott Room of Smith and Caughey's building. We hardly ever see large group shows of international photography so I rushed along at lunchtime.

The exhibition's staff told me that it was best to move about the space clockwise and I followed their instructions. I didn't imagine that I would get such a wallop from the viewing.

There is something unnerving about looking at medium-scaled images of dead and dying people that never fails to shock me. Unlike seeing them in web-pages, newspapers, magazines and books, when they are framed and displayed on walls many scary issues can well up. It is not the shock value of the images that gets me but the way they are taken from their much more familiar territory of a news context. Their complex adjacent labels never mention the date when the photograph was made, sometimes they note a month but thier place in time is still confusing.

My experience of the show became even more complex when I studied the accompanying publication. The effect of the images was totally disimilar in the context of the book. Less elegaic and more controllable.

Visiting the exhibition only served to reinforce my belief that the context of the reception of a photographic image always affects how we react to it. On the walls, some of the photographs felt utterly transgressive. Not as evidence but as reportage of humanity's ability to be destroy life.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Photography Curator and Collector known as Sam Wagstaff Jr (1921-1987)

Part Two

At home, all through my teenage years, I had only one photograph on my bedroom wall. It was a duo-tone reproduction of a rare portrait from about 1902 by Baron Wilhelm van Gloeden (1856-1931). I had removed the portrait from Creative Camera magazine which our local bookshop gave me. I never knew much about Van Gloeden then.

Later, I learnt that he was a German expatriate who lived for years in Taormina, Sicily. His photographs were reproduced in the very first issue of that influential British art magazine The Studio. This portrait always seemed to me to be a very strange image – a Sicilian teenager holding a pair of datura flowers against his face like armour or a wreath.

I soon picked up that this portrait was deliberately referencing the ancient Mediterranean but I did not realise that it is also an early example of fabricated photography from the early 1900s. Only recently did I realise that I was looking at it a full decade before Sam Wagstaff had acquired a vintage print of it while on a journey away from New York with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. It is likely that this Van Gloeden was one of the first photographs to enter Sam’s collection; his images soon influenced Robert’s own portraits.
The Jewish American photographer Doris Ulmann (1882-1934) is a personal favourite with me. In Christchurch some years ago, I discovered her very rare illustrated book Roll, Jordan Roll from 1933 which profiles the vanishing Gullah speaking Black population of the Sea Islands of South Carolina. These are some of the most intimate portraits of Black American life ever made.
For images from this remarkable book consult:

Sam Wagstaff collected a number of Ulmann’s Appalachian portraits (1928-1934) and these belong with the finest images made in the Pictorialist photographic tradition. They are set up but they never feel manipulative, she had a natural ability to put people at ease. Doris was clear about her intentions: “The faces of men and women in the street are probably as interesting as literary faces, but my particular human angle leads me to men and women who write. I am not interested exclusively in literary faces, because I have been more deeply moved by some of my mountaineers than by any literary person. A face that has the marks of having lived intensely, that expresses some phase of life, some dominant quality or intellectual power, constitutes for me an interesting face. For this reason the face of an older person, perhaps not beautiful in the strictest sense, is usually more appealing than the face of a younger person who has scarcely been touched by life.” (See: Doris Ulmann: Photographer-in-waiting," Bookman, 72, 129-144).

A friend came across a rare Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) portrait in Auckland in a second hand store. These are some of the most emotionally charged photo-portraits ever created. They are usually close-up views, the camera is nearly in her subject's face. Julia had a wide circle of friends and regularly asked them to sit for her. Thomas Carlyle’s portrait may be softly focused but this does not reduce its intensity one iota. Likewise, her images of Sir John Herschel and Lord Alfred Tennyson are almost without equal as portraits of British intellectual brilliance during the nineteenth century. These men come across time as if they are living the life of a thinking genius. (Strange to say it but don't all genius's think? You know what I'm getting at because its not a word we use much for the living).

Julia Cameron had no doubt that she was an important artist even though she only started her work while nearing her 50th year: “My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and Ideal and sacrificing nothing of the Truth by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty.” She was one of the most skilled image makers, so much so that even sentiment means something real to her. Her sentiment is never schmaltzy, its endearing.
These three photographs once belonged to Sam Wagstaff. They reveal how much insight he had as a collector. He was drawn to what had been ignored in the history of photograph. He was one great collector!
Doris Ulmann
Berry Pickers circa 1930
Platinum print
Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden
Boy holding lilies, Taormina, Sicily circa 1902
Albumen print
Julia Margaret Cameron
Thomas Carlyle 1867
Albumen print

Friday, 6 August 2010


Well this is my last day at the Auckland Art Gallery and it has been a fabulous 5 or so years. Things in the online space have changed a lot in that time, indeed this blog wasn't even a twinkle in my eye when i started. I truly believe that working online is one of the most challenging but exciting places to work. You never get bored, there is always something new coming out to push the boundaries a little further. I love it and will continue to work online in my new role.

Good luck to the Gallery in all their future project, i know great things will come out of those offices.

Anyway, I'm handing over the blog and look forward to seeing some fabulous posts up here.

Onwards and upwards, I shall miss all the wonderful staff both here and also at the many other institutions around the country that I have met. Thanks for all the wonderful support.

Take Care
Over and out

Sarah xx

p.s i bumped into Gok on my leaving lunch hence the odd leaving photo below! x

The Photography Curator and Collector known as Sam Wagstaff Jr (1921-1987)

Part one:

I watched Black White + Gray, James Crump’s documentary on Sam Wagstaff and felt dissatisfied with its perspective on one of the most influential curators of photography. The feature length portrait did not create a convincing portrait for me of Sam as an outstanding and incisive collector of photographs. It concentrated much more on the man’s personal life and his relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe.

Sam started forming his collection during 1973, purchasing widely and boldly across all periods but in particular pre-World War I material. A decade later he sold almost all of the collection to the Getty Museum and set that institution onto a strategic plan that quickly established one of the world’s key photography collections. The Getty’s photography curator Gordon Baldwin knew Sam personally and commented, “It was pretty clear that he came from a starchy background.”

In 1978, Gray Press issued A Book of Photographs from the collection of Sam Wagstaff in conjunction with an exhibition of the works at Washington’s Corcoran Gallery, that later travelled throughout America. This show alerted many museum curators that they just were not giving enough attention to the achievement of photography.

It is impossible to not be moved by this outstanding collection. It is totally heterogeneous and idiosyncratic. The images that Sam collected were not constrained by silly ideas about hierarchies of value. He mixed up categories in a way that no museum was then doing: travel and industrial, ethnographic and amateur, scientific and pictorialist photography. Sam refused to be constrained by notions that certain photographs were more important than others.

You can access Sam Wagstaff's archive at the Archives of American Art:

In my next blog I will show three favourites from his collection.