The Poor Man’s Picture Gallery  @ Tate Britain (4.11.2014)

(The text here comes from my own notes and does not necessarily reflect the speakers view)

The trains mean I arrive a few minutes late and miss the introduction from Denis Pellerin who curates Brian May’s collection of stereographs which is filled with witticisms. It is about stereoscopy, giving a number of examples. We are given 3D glasses to view the projected photographs; one can obtain similar effects by screwing up one eye.

Stereoscopes of works of art were used to show them to a much wider audience although these were in fact photographic recreations of the original scenes depicted.
Without stereoscopic glasses the photos look fuzzy as they are in fact double exposures. Pellerin jokes that there is “more to stereo than meets the two eyes!”
Millions of stereoscopes were made and many are still around while I the
subject tends to be ridiculed by the art establishment.
Elizabeth Edwards from De Montfort University
Her interest in stereoscopy centres around the relationship between photography and history in the 19’th Century. The “historical imagination” is a term she uses. National heritage used to be privately owned while mass enfranchisement was made possible by photography. Many things such as natural history could be more widely accessed. Photography is more visceral and stereoscopy played an important part in all this.
The Middle Ages are a popular form of historical imagination! Lots of stereo cards were made of historical places and this affected the way in which historical monuments were seen by the nation. Stereo cards helped to make old monuments important and worth saving. History became compulsive subject in 1906 for all schools. Performing historical pageants became popular and were much photographed while stereoscopy played an important part in dissemination of the historica
Inside the “Sepia Cube”: stereoscopic photographs of sculptures as ideal exhibition space – talk by Dr Patrizio Di Bella from Birbeck University
Stereoscopes made a very useful medium for seeing sculpture. Some stereoscopes were housed in mahogany boxes and selling stereo cards became a profitable business.
Stereo cards sold individually and in packs while photographs of sculpture were used in the making of these cards. There were problems with the technology as in the use of collodion. Cameras were considered the new engines of the fine arts and stereoscopy proved a good way to communicate sculpture to a much wider audience. Stereo cards were used in the viewing of sculpture from the 1862 Great Exhibition; they made it possible to enjoy the sculptures on show without having to go to the crowded, noisy and sometimes smelly exhibition.
Stereo cards of sculptures suggest a correct point from which to view them; appropriate backgrounds can be maintained. Anyone could become a collector thanks to stereo cards that allow the body of the sculpture to be there without actually being here! They perform function of modern art gallery. Sepia toning of prints helps; they effect darker tones and leave the higher tones in white marble statues.
Stereoscopes helped focus the view of the onlooker encouraging closer views like the audioguides of today!
Chat with couple who ask what my interest in stereoscopy is; they own a small collection of magic lantern images. Cheap stereograph viewers available via EBay!
Lindsay Smith, lecturer in English from Sussex University, talks about The Death of Chatterton, a famous painting that was photographed with models and made into a stereoscope by more than one photographer; Robinson was the first and later followed by Michael Burr. The subject concerns the death of a 17 year old poet by suicide. Ruskin has commented on the original painting by Henry Wallis which has effected the way the work has been understood.
The steroscope gives a much more tangible effect to the work. Why Chatterton as a subject? There is the experience of the domestic interior with an accompanying desire to inhabit the space which is made feasible via stereoscopy.
Chatterton was born in Bristol from a mother who was widowed. He spent his childhood in the environs of a church and was later apprenticed to a lawyer. He fact ked Medieval documents claiming they were written by a monk but these were found out to be false. Chatterton had moved to London and later killed himself; he was later buried in a workhouse cemetry that no longer exists.
Wallis’ painting of him attracted a lot of praise and it was soon made into a photograph. The idea of a destitute contemporary young male artist was a subject that attracted interest; a kind of Male Ophelia! Photography imbued with new significance the subject in hand.
(Ref- The Profligerate Camera book.)
James Robinson made a photographic image of the subject of this painting using models and was sued for copying the idea of the original. He argued that the effect of the stereo card could not in anyway be taken for the painting. Although he lost his case other stereo graphs continued to be made of paintings without impunity.
Stereo photographs promise an intimacy not available in paintings!
Michael Burr made more than one stereograph of The Death of Chatterton; such an image allows one to look into the face of death!
Henry Walli also did an image of the room in which Shaespeare was born; similar scene but no obvious human presence in spite of figurines and a death mask.
The notion of forged likeness a common theme!
The painter and poet D.G.Rossetti had an almost obsessional interest in Chatterton and wrote about him
There is no actual photograph of Chatterton’s face!
Stereo photographs allow one to enter a sacred space
Another professor from De Montfort University; Dr. Kelley Wilder who talks about “Knowledge in 3D: art and science of the real”
Hard fact – what might that be? Ruskin concerned with this. Stereoscopes as a way of thinking; an abstract realm of thought transferred to the concrete world of images.
Litchtenberg a naturalist from the 18’th century; in 1765 expressing a desire for real representation, fixing the image of a Camera Obscura. Made figurative representations of the discharge of electricity through imprints of discharges recorded in a block of resin. Didactic message in image that tells us something about electricity; Knowledge encapsulated in image! Stereo photographs similar to this.
(Lichtenburg images are available via EBay!!)
Paintings of children in oval frames.
Colours of camera Obscura very jewel like; striking! Encouraged close looking and observation. Educational.
Cartesian idea of vision not complete; vision also happens in the brain not just at the front of one’s eyes. This was an I mportant idea at that time.
Soap bubbles featured in paintings of this time that considered the nature of voluntary attention, both physical and mental. A photograph pictures children examining a soap bubble – their concentrated gazes! There are stereoscopes of soap bubbles! Generated problems that took years to solve; allowed people to study soap bubbles.
Observation of the process of thinking, way one looks at stereo image. Forces one to be introspective, observing what is already known. Meant to enable us to think about the way we perceive the world.
Another professor of English, this one from Exeter and male. John Plunkett Talks about “Live pictures for All: realism, Art and Stereoscopy” which concerns itself with the era of Victorian Britain
There is a relationship between vision and touch just as there is a relationship between stereoscopy and painting!
Before stereoscope achieved commercial status in mid 19’th centruy
Questioned that spatial perception relied on the eye also involved touch
Conflicting accounts of what stereoscope represented
David Brewster 1826 said that our minds are being effected when observing
The greater one’s knowledge the more likely one is to be deceived
Haptic dimension of stereographs, embodied realism; mind feeling it’s way to the depth of the picture.
Wendell Homes in 1859 suggested the idea of stereographs retaining skins of carcasses without body!
Many genres of stereoscopic subjects reproduced e.g Tintern Abbey popular
Tinted photographs used in stereographs
Filters used to make Chromatic stereoscopes
Many new viewing practices at this time e.g. Microscopes of different kinds
Stereographs were exhibited in different ways
Tactility of 3D
General Discussion
Soap bubbles – interesting motif in art – tactility! If you touch them they are gone.
Stereoscope has always been advertised as being educational and amusing but not used to any real extent in the teaching of fine art.
Introspective effect of stereoscopes
Exerted considerable effect on popular taste in 19’th century
London Stereoscopic Company stil going
Label of art allowed men to look at images of naked women
Lenses of stereoscope magnify
1850 to 1861 golden age of stereoscopes with revivals since e.g. Just after First World War
Ongoing fascination with 3D images
Stereoscopic quality to some paintings (also photographs?)
Soap bubbles can have a stereoscopic effect
Dreamlike quality to stereoscopes; magical appeal
Create lifelike quality

The Modern Lens

This exhibition is said to showcase international photography between the 1920’s and the 1960’s which roughly corresponds to the Modernist era in photography; it seems the title of the exhibition “The Modern Lens” (taken from a quote by Bauhaus photographer Moholy-Nagy) has a meaning beyond the suggestion that photography is a modern art since it is quite specific in its scope. Themes such as Abstraction, Surrealism and Constructivism are dealt with while the influence of the Bauhaus School with it’s awareness of light, space and tone is also recognised.
The exhibition examines the drive of Modernism via photography in relation  to geographical places and considers important photographers. Tension is generated between universal language, making society better through art, personal Surrealist viewpoints and abstractionism.
One photographer in particular emerges, Harry Callahan, who was part of the New Bauhaus at the Chicago Institute of Design under Moholy-Nagy. Although I saw a display of his work earlier this year at the Tate Modern, it will be interesting to see such work in the context of this exhibition. The Tate Modern has a video of Callahan’s work on it’s website introduced by Simon Baker, the exhibition curator who I sometimes see in London both formally and informally. Callahan did a certain amount of nature photography adopting a style reminiscent of Karl Blossfeldt of the New Expressionism movement which emerged after the First World War.
This exhibition promises to be an interesting exploraion of photographic modernism as it is about the relevance of photography to the history of art in what is loosely known as the Modernist period when photographers focused on terms such as “composition and structure, light and shadow”; this “international tendency” rather than movement was not just a feature of the West but also occurred in Asia and Latin America.
In Latin America, photographers like Manuel Alvarez Bravo who met the French photographer Heenri Cartier-Bresson and Geraldo de Barros who met the artist max Bild emerged as ideas and influences arrived. Lilian’s Porter, an Argentinian, shows a group of 10 photo etchings which picture the sequential screwing up of a piece of paper, the symbolism of which bears a significant relationship to the fact that the photographic image was paper based; of course, it no longer is!
Bravo who lived to be 100, photographed his native Mexico, as a contemporary rather than looking back to traditional ways. It was not mere documentary though as his images had underlying artistic themes such as “Tools, 1931” a close up of a spanner and a couple of bolts strategically placed.
De Barros who also painted was from Brazil; he became an important international modernist photographer who was skilled in finding the Absract in ordinary forms. Other photographers included Gasparian, Makarius and Farkas who either found abstract designs or constructed them from the modern industrialised world around them.
A strong sense of geometrical design predominates in this first gallery where all the photographs are in black and white although there is some coloured artwork by Helio Oiticica (Gouache on cardboard)
The Second Gallery is a show of “Surrealist Encounters” from the 1920’s and are small contact prints made by three artists Charlotte Perriand (designer), Pierre Jeanneret (architect) and Ferdinand Leger (painter) from walks they made together near Paris and along the Normandy Coast. Found views and objects were photographed, both industrial and natural, sometimes being doused with water for further effect. Again there is a sense of geometry to the form within these images yet there is also a suggestion of something other, meaning beyond the design. The series is called “Objects reacting poetically” and the approach is Surrealist, tapping into the Unconscious.
The third gallery was meant to show the British response to Modernism via Unit One, the group set up by Paul Nash in 1933, but instead is given over to the work of Claude Cahun, a transsexual, who was often photographed by her partner Marcel Moore with the photographs being sent to a commercial laboratory for development. Many of these constructed images have an uncomfortable feel to them, in their suggestion of bondage for instance, yet do reveal a Surrealistic world of dreams.
Tha Apse is a small room but a significant one since it introduces the Bauhaus, “one of the most influential art and design schools in the twentieth century” that was eventually closed down by the Nazis in 1933. The idea was that art could be introduced to perform a more social end. Photography featured strongly with Walter Peterhans and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the latter asserting “the visual image has been expanded and even the modern lens is no longer tied to the narrow limit of our eye.” (The title of the exhibition  is taken from this quote from Moholy-Nagy). Peterhans encouraged students to experiment visually with an egg and a piece of twine!
There are examples of small Photobooks here such as Bauhaus and the Tea Ceremony by Michiko Yamawaki. There are also snapshots of Bauhaus people and buildings while a video of Moholy-Nagy’s is projected onto one wall; it shows a variety of metallic shapes slowly interacting with each other. Moholy-Nagy Was also a theorist who wrote books such as “Painting, Photography, Film” and envisioned a kind of Industrial Utopia.
The Bauhaus was an international school and it’s teaching spread around the globe. The next gallery shows the effect it had on Japan. Iwao Yamawaki came from Japan to study architecture but also became an accomplished photographer. The German exhibition Film and Photo travelled to Japan in 1931.
This exhibition shows works by Iwao Yamawaki who not only made thoughtful compositions of architecture, he also photographed other forms.
Komura made imaginative compositions of mundane forms such as the human body; she was also playing with wabi-sabi, a Japanese approach that emphasised the fleeting nature of beauty, an aesthetic characterised by simplicity, modesty and intimacy.  Shikanosuke Yagaki photographed ordinary everyday vignettes.
The penultimate gallery considers the Hungarian influence; Moholy-Nagy was Hungarian but there were others such as Gyorgy Kepes who tended to set up his own little scenes and used photographic techniques such as double exposures to emphasise their meanings. Gyula Holics had a similar approach yet relied more on the presence of light to make her point felt. Judith Karasz had gone to the Bauhaus to study photography and her images here show close ups of textured surfaces such as textiles; she was expelled from Germany because of Communist sympathies.
The final gallery shows the work of one artist Harry Callahan who was part of and taught at the Chicago New Bauhaus. There are both monochrome and colour works here. Of particular interest to me, are his nature photographs in which simple forms play an important part. A lot of his work seems abstract with Surrealist intentions such as use of marionettes as well as his wife and only model Eleanor; the photograph of her submerged in water with only her head and hair visible shows a typical range of tones.
I am not greatly impressed by this exhibition yet it is of interest in seeing the way photography emerged in the Modernist era and the manner it took it’s first steps into the art world. Does it belong there?!
In fact, this exhibition represents a part of the Tate collection and is therefore limited in scope. There is no photographic representation by British photographers since that work is concentrated in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection; this may be convenient for the gallery but for the visitor it might prove somewhat incomprehensible. What is this exhibition really about? The Tate collection it seems rather than a particular era of photography. However, over half the exhibition is devoted to a photographic exploration of the Bauhaus School and that is something quite unique which I have not seen in other exhibitions where photography is often portrayed as a lesser art within the context of the Bauhaus; here, we see more of the important role. For me, this part of the exhibition is what made it worthwhile.
The curators talk of making a publication available that might be available by Christmas time but possibly not until january. A significant number of people have asked for this perhaps because as the exhibition stands, it is rather meaningless.
I attended three tours in relation to this exhibition.
The first was about the role of technology in the art work since various processes were used such as Photo-Etching (not quite sure what this process involves) as well as making Photograms (I have done this in the darkroom and it involves shining a light onto a piece of photographic paper while inseting an object between the two) yet for many of the works one was left wondering exactly in which matter the effects were achieved such as in Gyorgy Kepes’ image of a spiral in which there was a smaller image of what looked like a spider’s web but might have been a geometrical construction inserted by the photographer (like many photographers of this time, Kepes had no formal education). There were however some insights in this talk such as a brief description of the diatype colour printing process used by Harry Callahan in some of his photographs although this was more fully explained in the Simon Barber video.  Of course, the speaker was not specifically trying to explain photographic processes since the influence of technology was an important influence as a subject in it’s own right; it was the job of the artist to assimilate these concepts and make the ordinary extraordinary.
I also attended two other curatorial tours both of which were interesting; notes from these have been incorporated into my text.