Joy Before The Object

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
28 September 2013 - 2 February 2014

It is Albert Renger-Patzsch’s phrase that gives the title to this excellent exhibition of photography. He wrote, ‘There must be an increase in the joy one takes in an object, and the photographer should be fully conscious of the splendid fidelity of reproduction made possible by his technique’.

It is telling that Renger-Patzsch’s publisher made a marketing decision to change the title of his 1928 book from Things to The World Is Beautiful. The same thing might happen today, since marketing favours giving people what they expect rather than what the author might be trying to provoke. Predictably, the publisher’s change upset Renger-Patzsch, because it takes the focus off the objects depicted in his photographs, moving it towards the overbearing judgement of a human subject. Precisely the wrong direction in which to go with the new art of photography, according to his view, one he shared with other better known contemporaries like Steigler and Man Ray. Photography’s virtue was objective—as a trained chemist, Renger-Patzsch had a scientist’s aesthetic. Photography was to be contrasted with the excessively subjective sensibility of the old art of painting. The thought-provoking notion of ‘joy before the object’ informs the show in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s dedicated photography space. It is a remarkably compact but dense reflection on the viability of this contrast between the objective and subjective. Across the history of photography, it serves to point up some essential formal elements particular to it, while focussing on the key relationship of subject to object. These elements revolve around the directness of the relationship between the photograph and the viewer, its imagined ‘indexicality’ (Roland Barthes’s term). The photograph renders what is there; the object prompts the photograph in an important sense peculiar to the form. Whereas in painting, the personality of objects is given by the artist in the fashioning of line and colour, in the case of the photograph, the object seems to speak for itself. It can reveal its own ineffable beauty and an aesthetic proper to it. Such was the fidelity about which Renger-Patzsch wrote, and which he rendered in photographs both of nature and of technology. He conjures the ‘magic of materiality’ in images such as that of a cactus, Euphorbia grandicornis (1921-25), rendered in black and white luminous detail.

In Robyn Stacey’s Walnuts (2009), a similar evocation of the secret life of the object lies nested in the whorls and ridges of walnuts in their shells. And yet this is by no means the only emphasis possible in the potentials between object and viewer. Fidelity can obscure the subjective element in the looking, given that what we see, both as the viewer and through the viewfinder, evokes a reaction in us. The ‘joy before the object’ is also given in the glimpses of what our own vision brings to the scene and our own traditions of viewing, not to mention our own desires. So, for example, Stacey overlays an historical narrative on this image from her ‘Empire Line’ series; the walnuts are a reference to plantings in the colonial garden of Elizabeth Farm and carry with them the freight of a European life transplanted. Behind this, their vivid materiality speaks of the still life tradition, now transplanted over continents and art forms. The more we regard it, the more complicated the relation between the object and the subject becomes. It can give the lie to that unmediated feint at the heart of the photographic. Fidelity is in the eye of the beholder. Our belief is intimately caught up in what we see. Catherine Rogers’ inkjet prints, Cups and Plate on table edge, from the series ‘The Culture of the Table’ (2007), also address seventeenth century still life traditions. The differences between then and now are emphasised in the frailties of the teetering objects which, more alarmingly still, are rendered in the negative. Rogers’ techniques push the boundaries of the objective by revealing the affects bound up in certain ways of seeing things. Our comfort with domestic objects is here made strange in the photographic. And even that, of course, is a reference to the past, since Rogers’ images, as inkjet prints, refer also to the passing of a century of photographic techniques. The work becomes elegiac, and perhaps the idea of a culture of the table as a whole aims to hold the past in a poignant gaze. It seems hard not to leap to the erotic in the idea of joy in the object, and yet, quite rightly, the show overlooks this possibility in favour of a cooler perspective that might belong to something more like an ‘object-relations’ theory.

The attachments to objects depicted in the images refer sometimes to the technologies and prostheses. For example, Roger Fenton’s Bust of Homer (1854-58) was made as an albumen print, Ben Cauchi’s The Start of it All (2008) as an ambrotype, and Sarah Ryan’s Blossom (2005) uses digital lenticular technology. The images exhibit a strong attachment to photography’s conceptual possibilities; for example, Emma White opens imaginary pictorial spaces through rephotographing sculpted objects of an undefined nature in Still life with objects (2011).

‘The end of photography’ is a video, a banal but obscure image stream by American Judy Fiskin from 2006. It runs Super 8mm images of 1950s suburban houses and lawns, while a voice-over recites the darkroom contents that Fiskin has now abandoned since shifting to video work because of health issues.

‘…no more reels, no more tapes…’. ‘…no more water, no more darkness…’. There is something uncanny in Fiskin’s choice of the suburban as a form of life that itself will become anachronistic.

If this exhibition were a photograph, it would be notable for the depth of field, nuances in tone and revelations of partially-obscured elements. Such as the predominance of women among Australia’s talented contemporary photographers, and the delight taken in technological processes, both new and old, in the making of work.

The show brings out photography’s preoccupation with its history—paradoxical or perhaps predictable for such a modern art. Behind it we glimpse an agenda to make visible the many ways that photographers love their objects.

Sarah Ryan, blossom, 2005. Digital lenticular photograph, 60 x 60cm image, 63 x 63cm frame. Edition 2/2. Viktoria Marinov Bequest Fund, 2005. © Sarah Ryan.

Catherine Rogers, Cups, 2007. From the series The Culture of the Table. Piezo quadtone carbon and colour Ultrachrome inkjet print, 39.2 x 55.1cm image, 42.5 x 58.4cm frame. Edition AP. Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Collection Benefactors' Program, 2009. © Catherine Rogers.

Albert Renger-Patzsch, Euphorbia grandicornis, 1921-1925. Gelatin silver photograph, 23 x 16.8cm image, 23.9 x 18cm sheet. © Albert Renger-Patzch-Archiv/Ann und Jurgen Wilde. VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn/Liscensed by Viscopy, Sydney.