Why do so many people get so much pleasure from old photos? Here, “old” arbitrarily means any photo taken before you were born.
luminousmudbrick visited an Art Gallery of N.S.W. exhibition of a couple of hundred or so really old photos. Curated from a much larger collection of glass plates, they date from the end of the 19th century and were taken by a pioneer of French documentary photography, Eugène Atget (pronounced something like ‘Atjay’), 1857-1927. His photos record bits of what was left of mediaeval Paris after the city’s re-building, started by Baron Haussmann in the 1860s. The collection is mainly of Old Paris streetscapes and architectural detail; a few shots depict people; fewer still are interiors.
Here’s the point: why was this Australian exhibition packed out? It was hard to get a brief glimpse of the photos, let alone examine them closely, there were so many viewers. At half past ten. On a Monday morning. For a collection of sepia shots at least a century old. Of a city on the other side of the planet. At a show that had been open for over six weeks.
What’s going on with antipodean historical sensibilities?
This LISMORE ILLUMINATED section of the COLLECTION is not posted under the delusion that Lismore is the Paris of New South Wales. Nor does it have delusions of being rebirthed as a 21st century Eugène Atget. But Lismore is luminousmudbrick’s home city. Atget’s basic idea should work anywhere. The oft-quoted advice for all photographers rings true here: the best shots are waiting in your own back yard – if you’re willing to explore it properly.
A provocative question must be considered for a project like this. If you want to accurately document the heart of a city, with an expanding collection of images that will give information, and pleasure, to future generations, should the photographer attempt to stamp his or her subjective stylistic imprint onto a project whose main purpose is to produce an ‘objective’ historical record? This particular question opens a fascinating philosophical can of worms for anyone claiming to produce – or use – documentary material. Can any individual photographer’s selective, subjective vision of bits of a city become “objective” to an historian? Should the photos say: look at me, the city? Or, at me, the arty photographer?
Luminousmudbrick’s somewhat devious way round these questions is provided by a photographer friend: ”I think the essence of photography, or part of it anyway – is to record without worrying too much as to whether the image fits currently acceptable styles.” That is, get out and shoot. Let the historians of the future judge the documentary value of the photos.
So, with American painter and photographer Chuck Close’s dictum in mind: “Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work”, luminousmudbrick, whilst mindful of theoretical aesthetic questions, continues to add to the set of Galleries named LISMORE ILLUMINATED.