By the Art Gallery of NSW
This education kit was produced for the 2016 exhibition Imprint: photography and the impressionable image . It presents a selection of focus works from the exhibition along with questions and activities for students in Years 7 -12.
Click on an image for more information (including medium and dimensions) and to view the work in the Gallery collection.
This exhibition places two distinct modes of reproduction – the photograph and the sculptural cast – in dialogue with one another. In spite of their material differences, the photograph and the sculptural cast are produced by parallel processes. Both depend on the transference of form across negative and positive impressions, whether this occurs via a mould that produces a positive cast or a film negative that produces a photographic print. The exchange between negative and positive impressions establishes a line of contact that binds the subject to its reproduction. The photograph and the cast do not simply record a subject’s likeness – they retain a trace of the subject itself. In the cast this trace is delivered by direct physical contact, but in the photograph it is mediated by light: a photograph records the light that once illuminated the subject.
Trace impressions, like echoes, reverberate through every photograph and sculptural cast. Imprint explores this reciprocity by examining photographs of life casts, death masks, fossils, wax moulds and other cast forms. The works on display draw attention to the residual presence of the photographic subject and the way it is both memorialised and masked. Like a looped reflection, they complicate the distinction between original and copy, animate and inanimate. Here, it is the echo – not the voice – that resonates.
Questions and activities
Consider the connections between photographs and sculptural casts. Research both processes involved in creating them, listing similarities and differences. How are negative and positive impressions created in each?
How do the images in this exhibition 'retain a trace of the subject itself'? Consider the way the photographs explore memory and a connection to the past. What impact does this have on your experience of the works? Discuss.
Choose an artwork from this exhibition that acts as a ‘memorial’, recording something now past. Explore the mood being portrayed. What elements has the artist used to make you feel this way?
Select a number of objects and images from your immediate environment that reflect the idea of reproduction; plaster casts, footprints, masks, fingerprints. Photograph these in a variety of contexts to create a series. Consider elements such as composition, lighting, scale, contrast and focus.
Sculpture proved a convenient and obedient subject matter for early photographers. Statuettes and plaster casts could withstand the long exposure times that photographic technology demanded and their colourless surfaces were still legible in monotonal photographic prints. Photography evolved alongside developments in mechanical casting methods and both mediums were implicated in the proliferation and mass circulation of copies and reproductions during the 19th century.
Roger Fenton was the British Museum’s photographer from 1853 to 1859. Through deft use of light and shadow his photographs animate inert subjects. They also cultivate an imagined tactility: we register the surface texture of the object despite its physical absence.
American pictorialist Edward Steichen met French sculptor Auguste Rodin in 1901. Steichen had travelled to Paris after seeing a photograph of Rodin’s sculpture of French writer Honoré de Balzac in a Milwaukee newspaper in 1898. Swayed by Steichen’s emotive sensibility and atmospheric use of light, Rodin commissioned him to photograph the plaster model of the sculpture at night. In this nocturnal series Steichen traced moonlight across the imposing figure who is starkly delineated against the landscape and cloaked in shadow. Acknowledging the intimate exchange between photography and sculpture, Rodin told Steichen in 1908, ‘You will make the world understand my Balzac through your pictures.’
Closely aligned with Germany’s new-vision avant-garde, Werner Rohde experimented with photomontage and double-exposure but was also preoccupied with surrealist formulations of the uncanny. His photographs pervert the delineation between the animate and inanimate; wax mannequins and dolls masquerade as human forms while real models, including his wife Renate Bracksieck, appear lifeless. In Wax dollhead this macabre illusion is amplified by dramatic lighting and the wax figure’s realistic eyelashes, teeth and wrinkles. It is also augmented by the nature of photography itself. All photographs complicate the division between the animate and inanimate; they immobilise their subjects yet still convey a faint trace of life.
New Zealand photographer Fiona Pardington is sensitive to photography’s ability to bind the present to the past. In her series Āhua: a beautiful hesitation, Pardington photographed phrenological life casts of Maori people made by Pierre-Marie Alexandre Dumoutier during Dumont d’Urville’s 1837–40 expedition to the Pacific. Produced to record and study the skull, the casts reinforced prejudicial racial profiling. In Pardington’s photographs the subjects acquire an agency over their own history. Neither inert nor passive, they are, as art historian Kriselle Baker noted in 2011, a ‘breathing presence… poised between silence and speech’. The circuit of representation that Pardington constructs lends a forceful monumentality to these figures that transcends time.
Australian artist Christine Cornish examines photography’s relationship to absence and the poetics of disappearance. Photographs are material remnants of the past and portraits of loss that memorialise subjects no longer present. In her series Natura morta Cornish photographed objects camouflaged against shallow dark backgrounds. These rigidly frontal compositions borrow the aesthetic and symbolic vocabulary of vanitas painting. Cornish is particularly interested in the role of the funereal object as a metaphoric index of disappearance. Her objects evade the gaze; the severed stone hand wrapped in string in this photograph is barely legible. Like a death mask, this photograph documents disappearance even as it reveals and presents its subject.
Australian-based photographer Juliana Swatko has experimented with technologies like thermal printing and electrostatic imaging to expand the material limits of the photograph. Her Haloid Xerox prints were produced on the first commercially available photocopier that functioned like a camera and was capable of accommodating multiple exposures on a single plate. This photograph, an image of a cloned and splintered figure, enlists the spectacle of photographic proliferation as a formal device. An accumulation of fleeting trace impressions, the image appears unfixed, as if it were just hovering over the paper.
To produce this analogue photogram, Douglas Holleley folded damp photographic paper into a bundle before exposing and developing it in the darkroom. Abandoning both the camera and the negative, Holleley sought to ‘allow an image to come into being without any reliance on any object other than the piece of photo paper itself’, as he retrospectively remarked in 2015. The viewer has no identifiable subject to orient themselves for it is the paper, the light and the act of photographic inscription that is recorded here. In this work the event of photography is visually coded.