Anastasia and I had a fun time in Canberra yesterday while Tegan went to a high tea at the Hyatt. We went to the lake to watch and feed the swans, had hot chocolate and a brownie at Pork Barrel and checked out the rose gardens opposite Old Parliament House. Anastasia had to be convinced that she wasn’t actually allowed to pick roses and take them home, as she originally announced she was going to do.
The three of us went to the ‘Close Up‘ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery yesterday. This is an exhibition of works by a photographer named Martin Schoeller and was quite enjoyable. Every photo is almost identical – they are more or less composed, lit and photographed in exactly the same way (though I noticed a few where the post-processing was noticeably different, for example in a photo of Henry Kissinger). About half to tw-thirds of the exhibition are portraits of celebrities, ranging from Paris Hilton to Barack Obama. The remainder of the exhibition are photos of people from tribes in South America and Africa. The effect is very interesting – in theory the work should be a great equaliser, with there being no real difference in the end between the celebrities and the tribespeople. However, to my mind the celebrity portraits were more engaging. I’m not sure why – maybe I’ve just been conditioned to find those people interesting, or maybe they really did have more of a presence in front of the camera. Whatever it was, the exhibition overall was great and worthwhile visiting.
Outside the exhibition they had a bench set up (more for kids, I guess) with shaving mirrors, paper and pencil so that one could sketch oneself. The three of us all had a go at it, though Anastasia finished first and spent most of the time eating her morning tea.
This was the first sketching I had done since art class in early high school. I was terrible at it back then, but perhaps not so bad these days.
I went to this exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney today. In a word: fantastic. If you have any interest in portrait photography, you should definitely check it out.
The exhibition is based on photos taken by Leibovitz in the period 1990-2005 (although I think I saw a couple from 1988). The exhibition is a mixture of her famous work – portraits of celebrities mostly, the kind of thing you’re used to seeing on Vanity Fair covers – and also lots of photos of her family and home life – primarily her parents and her partner, Susan Sontag. 2005 was picked as the end year for the retrospective as it was the year that both Leibovitz’s father and partner died. There are also a bunch of other photos of a kind that we’re not used to seeing from Leibovitz, including images from Rwanda and Sarajevo shot during the wars in those places. There are also a number of landscape images. Despite these being the largest images in the exhibition, they’re obviously not her forte.
What was probably most interesting about the exhibition was that with the exception of one or two walls, the photos of her family were completely interspersed around the exhibition with her photos of celebrities. There’s a quote from Leibovitz about half way through the exhibition to the effect that she doesn’t have her celebrity portraiture life and her home life – it’s just one life. This was the dominant theme in the layout of the exhibition and it worked.
The celebrity photos were wonderful and it was great seeing large prints of these. Many of them were printed showing the framing borders of the film and it was amazing to see how well she uses the whole frame. The good parts of her photos are not cropped from a larger negative – the whole thing is masterfully composed. In fact, that was the dominant thing that struck me about her style: she has an exceptional eye for composition – absolutely masterful and you see it time and time again through the exhibition.
The most moving photos were those from the war zones – none of them show the conflict directly, just the after effects on people or the blood trails or smears where it is obvious that something awful has happened to everyday people. The ones of her family were also moving – most of them were not much more than snapshots and I don’t remember any of them being printed much larger than about 4×6, but they still had power. In particular, the ones showing Susan Sontag in hospital while suffering from cancer were quite moving. There was a set of these, I think it was, in the same room as this photo of Leonardo DiCaprio with a swan around his neck, which is a great photo and it was a great print. After seeing the moving family ‘snapshots’ I turned around and looked at the DiCaprio photo and thought ‘how kitsch’ – it was just so unreal and false.
I don’t think it was the point of the exhibition but I came out quite struck and in some ways turned off by the unreality of the Hollywood/celebrity images, despite the fact that I thought most of them were fantastic and the kind of thing that I would otherwise aspire to be able to produce. Seeing the endearing and also wonderful, though not overly posed or manufactured, photos of Leibovitz’s family and the passing of loved ones struck me that they were the main game; the real thing; the kind of things that are actually worth documenting. In the end, though, I think that’s more a comment on our society than on Leibovitz.
If you would be so kind, please vote for this photo of mine for inclusion in a photography magazine:
Incidentally, JPG Magazine is a rather amazingly good photography magazine – the photos and articles it contains are of a much better quality than you find in your average photography magazine. I heartily recommend checking it out.