WILLIAM EGGLESTON PORTRAITS, NGV International, until June 18
ZOE CROGGON: TENEBRAE, NGV International, until July 30
PHOTOGRAPHY 130, RMIT Gallery, until April 13
Clicking a shutter became a reflex action for elegantly dressed misfit William Eggleston, born in 1939, a son of the American South.
In the 1960s and ’70s, he used a camera like a sounding device with which to discover a milieu for his creativity.
William Eggleston Portraits, curated by Phillip Prodger of London’s National Portrait Gallery, includes many images of unidentified people – in cars, diners, or any public place – but one of Eggleston’s more straightforward, black-and-white images is of the family’s black maid, Lucille Fleming, making a bed in their home in Mississippi in the early ’60s.
Usually, even when the subjects are shown in domestic interiors, Eggleston’s camera appears to disturb the equilibrium of a benign setting. That is, his interest in the banality of a scene has the effect of making it appear strange.
Much is made of this alienation effect with a large print of his uncle, Adyn Schuyler snr, with Schuyler’s assistant and driver Jasper Staples, posed by a Mississippi bayou; and one from the same period (1969-70) of Devoe Money, a well-groomed, frail figure seemingly held upright by the vibrant patterning of her dress, seen against the autumnal chintz of a garden seat.
An interest in colour processes (including Polaroid, pigment print and especially the extremely saturated colours of dye-transfer) was Eggleston’s claim to fame. Which is not to say that anyone composes in black and white without being aware of colour, but that, at the time of his solo show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1976, art photography – for the purists at least – was still largely monochrome.
Across town from these images at the National Gallery of Victoria’s first Festival of Photography, the Melbourne institution that offered the first “program in photography at post-secondary level anywhere in the world” is celebrating 130 years of technical and aesthetic achievement by alumni and staff with a wonderful survey of 100 photographs, curated by Shane Hulbert.
Established in 1887 with the motto Perita manus, mens exculta (a skilled hand, a cultivated mind), the Working Men’s College evolved over the following century into the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University (RMIT) in 1992.
Between 1949 and 1979, Frank Guy, who had worked as a photographer for Victoria Police, headed the college photography department. But his black-and-white image Family Hands is more than documentary. It’s the sort of tonally sensitive composition that Eggleston’s work was considered an affront to.
Among RMIT’s rollcall of internationally recognised commercial photographers are Stuart Crossett, whose Fuji Boy, (1988), is truly gorgeous; and Richard Kendall, whose car-porn commercial (all glossy curves and ejaculatory liquids) for Land Rover (2009) will make you feel right at home.
The allure of such images is not to be despised. Indeed, artists such as David Sylvester demonstrate ways of negotiating a place within the visual pleasure they depend upon. Sylvester engages directly with the language of consumerism in works such as Listen to Me (2012).
Also fully aware of our image saturation is emerging artist Zoe Croggon who works only in found images. In individual collages, Croggon syncopates, by cut and paste, reproductions of the human body and architectural forms to conjure a psycho-sexual response to the urban environment.
Looking across Croggon’s long balcony installation at the NGV, Tenebrae, you become aware of the rhythm of edges of passageways that punctuate the planes of the interior architecture. These accord with her designs.
With Tenebrae in particular, and with reference to the new photographic acquisitions also displayed at the NGV, we give thanks to the medium that has always led us towards the light.