Monday 23 October 2023

Photography: Real and Imagined at the NGV ~ A Huge and Dazzling Exhibition that Reexamines Our Thinking

Installation view of Photography: Real and Imagined on display at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia from October 14th, 2024, until February 4th, 2024. Photo: Lillie Thomson. Cover picture: Malala Andrialavidrazana, Figures 1850, various empires, kingdoms, states and republics 2015. Inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist and Afronovaova gallery. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Photo: Christian Markel / NGV 

By Sasha Grishin, Australian National University

Photography is almost 200 years old and Photography: Real and Imagined at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) can be interpreted as an attempt to make sense of its history.

A huge and dazzling exhibition containing 311 photographs, the basic thesis of this exhibition is that some photographs record an actuality, others are purely a product of the photographer’s imagination, while many are a mixture of the two.

The parameters of the exhibition are determined, in part, by the holdings of the NGV collection and, in part, by the perspective adopted by the curator, the erudite and long-serving senior curator of photography at the NGV, Susan Van Wyk.

Mercifully, the curator has not opted for a linear chronological approach from daguerreotypes to digital, although both are included in the exhibition, but has devised 21 diverse thematic categories, for example light, environment, death, conflict, work, play and consumption.

Australian artists, international context

The categories have porous boundaries. Even with the assistance of the 420-page book catalogue, it is difficult to determine why Michael Riley’s profoundly moving photograph of a dead galah shown against the cracked earth belongs to the environment theme instead of death; why Rosemary Laing’s Welcome to Australia image of a detention camp belongs to movement, instead of being in community, conflict or narrative.

Installation view of Photography: Real & Imagined on display at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia from October 13 2023 – February 4 2024. Photo: Lillie Thompson.

I felt that there was a perceived need to somehow organise the material, and the broad thematic structure allows the viewer to develop some sort of mega-narrative for the show.

There is also evident a desire to create an international context within which to display the work of Australian photographers.

It is indeed a very rich cross-section of Australian photographers assembled in this exhibition. This is not an Anglo-American construct of the history of photography; Australian photographers are presented together with New Zealanders and their Asian contemporaries.

Installation view of Photography: Real & Imagined on display at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia from October 13 2023 – February 4 2024. Photo: Lillie Thompson.

Although the NGV boasts of having the first curatorial department of photography in any gallery in Australia, in the department’s 55-year history there remain serious lacunae in the collection.

For example, Russian constructivist photographers, including Aleksandr Rodchenko, who, as far as I am aware, in the NGV collection is represented by a single small booklet, but looms large in any account of the history of photography as presented by the British, European and American museums. Eastern European photographers are also generally underrepresented.

Key moments, and surprises

This exhibition combines the iconic with the new and the unexpected.

The expected key moments in the history of photography are generally all present with the roll-call of names including Dora Maar, Man Ray, André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Eadweard Muybridge, Bill Brandt, Lee Miller and László Moholy-Nagy.

They are all included in the exhibition and are represented through their iconic pieces.

Henri Cartier Bresson, Juvisy, France 1938; printed 1990s. Gelatin silver photograph 29.1 x 43.9 cm (image). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased NGV Foundation, 2015. © Henri Cartier-Bresson / Magnum Photos. Photo: Nicholas Umek / NGV.

Henri Cartier Bresson’s Juvisy (1938), colloquially known as Sunday on the banks of the Marne, is an intentionally subversive image by this left-wing radical photographer.

This image, made at the height of the Great Depression, shows a victory by France’s popular left-wing government that legislated in 1936 the entitlement for French workers to have two weeks of paid vacation. Here the working class is enjoying a picnic at Juvisy, just to the south of Paris.

Dorothea Lange, Towards Los Angeles, California 1936; printed c. 1975. Gelatin silver photograph 39.6 x 39.1 cm (image); 40.8 x 50.5 cm (sheet). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased, 1975 © Library of Congress, FSA Collection. Photo: Predrag Cancar / NGV.

At about the same time, Dorothea Lange’s Towards Los Angeles, California (1936) contrasts the anguish of the unemployed trekking in search of work and a billboard advertising the comforts of train travel. An aphorism ascribed to her sums us much of her work:

Bad as it is, the world is potentially full of good photographs. But to be good, photographs have to be full of the world.

Man Ray’s Kiki with African mask (1926) is one of the most famous photographs in the world, also known as Noire et blanche (Black and White). The surrealist artist juxtaposes the elongated face of his Muse and mistress, Kiki (Alice Prin), with her eyes closed with that of a black African ceremonial mask.

Man Ray, Kiki with African mask, 1926. Gelatin silver photograph 21.1 x 27.6 cm (image); 22.1 x 28.5 cm (sheet). National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of Miss Flora MacDonald Anderson and Mrs Ethel Elizabeth Ogilvy Lumsden, Founder Benefactors, 1983. © MAN RAY TRUST / ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Copyright Agency, Australia. Photo: Helen Oliver-Skuse / NGV.

The photograph was controversial when it was first published and continues to be controversial to the present day.

There are also numerous modern classics in the exhibition, including Pat Brassington’s Rosa (2014), Polly Borlan’s Untitled (2018), from MORPH series 2018 and Robyn Stacey’s Nothing to see here (2019), that can all be viewed as edging into the realm of the uncanny. Beyond the façade of the familiar, we are invited to enter an unexpected world.

Installation view of Polly Borland’s Untitled 2018 from MORPH series 2018 on display in Photography: Real & Imagined at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia from October 13 2023 – February 4 2024. Photo: Lillie Thompson.

Reinterpreting our world

Photography’s reputation of creating a trustworthy facsimile of the real had long been eroded, even before the creation of digital software. There is an old adage, “paintings sometimes deceive, but photographs always lie” – precisely because there was a perception that they could not lie.

One of the most intriguing works in the exhibition is by the New Zealand-born photographer Patrick Pound, titled Pictures of people who look dead, but (probably) aren’t (2011–14). It is a sprawling installation of mainly found photographs where the audience is invited to create a life and death narrative.

Photography: Real and Imagined reexamines our thinking about the art of photography and explores photography’s ability to recreate and reinterpret our world.

Photography: Real and Imagined is at the Ian Potter Centre, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, until February 4 2024.The Conversation

Sasha Grishin, Adjunct Professor of Art History, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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Sunday 15 October 2023

100 years of Disney: From a Cartoon Mouse to a Global Giant, How Walt Disney Conquered the World

By Ben McCann, University of Adelaide

On October 16, 1923, brothers Walt and Roy set up a modest cartoon studio. Their goal was to produce short, animated films. They created a new character: a mouse, with large ears.

Named “Mickey”, he soon became one of the world’s most recognizable images.

Walt Disney was an innovator in terms of space, colour and movement. He had an uncanny ability to provide pleasure for millions of viewers struggling through the Great Depression.

A century later, Disney is one of the world’s largest entertainment conglomerates.

Disney has influenced countless other animation studios and artists. It has received Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature for the likes of The Incredibles, Up and Frozen. Walt himself holds the record for most nominations (59) and Oscar wins (22 competitive awards, plus four honorary awards) for a single individual.

Just how did Disney manage to do it?

Steamboat Willie and technological wonders

Based in Los Angeles, Disney set about innovating. He created The Alice Comedies, a series of short films featuring a live-action child actress in a cartoon world. Then came Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a precursor to Mickey Mouse.

Steamboat Willie, released in 1928, was the world’s first fully synchronised sound cartoon. His pioneering use of sound quickly became an industry norm.

A simple story featuring Mickey as a steamboat captain trying to navigate the boat while dealing with various comical situations, Steamboat Willie was universally praised. After a short theatrical run in New York, the film was exhibited nationwide and set Disney on its way.

The clip of Mickey holding the ship’s wheel and whistling became the company’s logo in 2007, reminding audiences of Steamboat’s enduring importance.

New characters emerged post-Steamboat, such as Donald Duck and Mickey’s love interest, Minnie, which still endure today.

Flowers and Trees, made in 1932, was the first animated short film to win an Academy Award – it was also Disney’s (and the industry’s) first full-colour three-strip Technicolor film.

By the end of the 1930s, Disney had pivoted to feature-length animated films, releasing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.

The golden age and feature films

What followed Snow White is often referred to as Disney’s “golden age”, with the release of Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942).

Those early films still dazzle today – think of the Sorcerers’ Apprentice scene in Fantasia (1940) or the Pink Elephants hallucinogenic number in Dumbo. And is there any scene, in any film, more heart-wrenching than the death of Bambi’s mother?

But the golden age never really stopped. The hits just kept on coming - Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955) and Mary Poppins (1964) remain enduring classics. In the 1990s, a new generation fell in love with Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994) – and these films were then remade as live-action versions in the 2010s.

Even a minor Disney film like Zootopia (2016) could make a billion dollars at the box-office.

Disneyland and diversification

In 1955, Walt Disney opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California. He wanted to build an inclusive theme park where all the family could have fun.

It set the standard for theme park design and showed the way forward for the company: diversification.

After Disneyland came Disney World in Florida in 1971, then versions of Disneyland in Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

A famous diagram, sketched by Walt himself in 1957, foreshadowed the direction Disney would ultimately take: a huge business empire of synergies, merchandising and cross-promotion.

Buyouts and a cultural behemoth

In 2006 Disney bought Pixar, in 2009 it bought Marvel and in 2012 it bought LucasFilm. These acquisitions solidified Disney’s position as the brand leader in the entertainment industry.

Pixar was known for films like Toy Story (1995) and Finding Nemo (2003) and the purchase would lead to multiple collaborations between the two.

Most recently, in 2019, Disney acquired 21st Century Fox for a staggering US$71 billion. The deal gave them instant access to Fox’s vast back catalogues.

The deal made some industry insiders uneasy: Disney had become a cultural behemoth, strangling competition, homogenising content and swallowing up entire franchises.

Not all plain sailing

Disney films proudly prioritise family values, stress teamwork and empathy and promote gender equality. Yet until relatively recently, its heroes and heroines were very visibly white, and the studio was criticised for invoking messages of privilege, racial hierarchy and standards of beauty.

Its 1946 film Song of the South has long been criticised for its racist portrayal of African Americans and its romanticisation of the plantation era. Since 1986, Disney have tried to keep it out of circulation, although clips can be found online.

Many old films streaming on Disney+ now feature a disclaimer telling viewers some scenes will include “negative depictions” and “mistreatment of people or cultures”.

LGBTQ+ representation has become more visible since LeFou became Disney’s first openly gay character in its 2017 live-action Beauty and the Beast. But the backlash was troubling, and Disney also ran into trouble with conservative critics with its same-sex kiss in Lightyear (2022), and would later be mocked as “woke Disney” by conservative politicians and media personalities.

CEO Bob Iger – who stepped down in 2021 but was then brought back in 2022 on a huge salary – has not fared well during the recent SAG-AFTRA disputes, with comments deemed out of touch and tone-deaf by many.

Still, despite these tricky issues, Disney’s corporate stranglehold shows no sign of abating. Its reach is gigantic. From cartoons to comics to CGI, Disney controls much of our popular culture.

“If you can dream it, you can do it,” Walt once said. As Disney turns 100, with a market capitalisation today of more than US$150 billion, that’s some dream come true.The Conversation

Ben McCann, Associate Professor of French Studies, University of Adelaide

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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Monday 9 October 2023

How did Taylor Swift Get So Popular? She Never Goes Out of Style

By Kate Pattison, RMIT University

Last week, USA Today/Gannett posted a job ad for a Taylor Swift reporter, seeking an experienced journalist and content creator to “capture the music and cultural impact of Taylor Swift”.

It’s not the first time Swift has been the focus of professional and academic work. In 2022, New York University’s Clive Davis Institute announced a course focused on Swift, taught by Rolling Stone’s Brittany Spanos. They also gave Swift an honorary doctorate in fine arts, as “one of the most prolific and celebrated artists of her generation”.

Other universities around the world followed with their own dedicated courses, including “The Psychology of Taylor Swift”, “The Taylor Swift Songbook” and “Literature: Taylor’s Version”.

While musicians and celebrities have been the subject of our fascinations for decades, it’s not often they receive such individualised attention. Swift’s impressive career can be studied from multiple perspectives, including marketing, fandom, business and songwriting, to name a few.

So why Taylor Swift?

From a music perspective, Swift has broken a lot of records. Last month, she became the first female artist in Spotify history to reach 100 million monthly listeners.

Swift has achieved 12 number one albums on Billboard, the most by a woman artist, overtaking Barbra Streisand earlier this year.

She’s the first and only woman solo artist to win the Album Of The Year Grammy three times, for Fearless (2009), 1989 (2015) and Folklore (2020) – each in a different musical genre. It’s a credit to Swift’s masterful songwriting, and demonstrates her ability to adapt her craft for different audiences.

There is an expectation for female artists to constantly re-invent themselves, something Swift reflected on in her Netflix documentary Miss Americana:

The female artists I know of have to remake themselves like 20 times more than the male artists, or you’re out of a job.

Over the course of her career, Swift has evolved from an award-winning country music singer to one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Each of her ten original studio albums has a distinct theme and aesthetic, which have been celebrated on Swift’s juggernaut Eras Tour.

The tour, which has just wrapped up its first US leg, is set to be the highest-grossing of all time, boosting local travel and tourism revenue along the way. A recent report estimates the tour could help add a monumental US$5 billion (A$7.8 billion) to the worldwide economy.

‘All I do is try, try, try’

But to measure Swift’s impact by her music alone would be limiting.

Swift has been instrumental in changing the business game for musicians. She’s taken on record labels and streaming services, advocating for better deals for artists.

In 2015, Apple Music changed its payment policies after Swift wrote an open letter campaigning for better compensation.

Most notably, she took a stand against her former record label, Big Machine Records, after it wouldn’t give her an opportunity to buy back her original master recordings. Her back catalogue was eventually sold to music executive Scooter Braun, kicking off a very public feud.

While she’s not the first artist to go after her masters, she’s generated an enormous amount of attention to an issue that’s often overlooked. Of course, Swift is in a position of privilege – she can take risks many other artists can’t afford to. But with this power she’s driving conversations around contracts and the value of music, paving the way for emerging artists.

In an effort to regain control of her earlier work, Swift announced she would be re-recording her first six albums. Each re-recorded album has included additional vault tracks, previously unreleased songs left off the original recordings.

These releases have each been accompanied by a robust promotional campaign, including new merchandise and multiple, limited-edition versions of each record for fans to collect.

The release of Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) marked the halfway point of this process, which has paid off big time. Fearless (Taylor’s Version), Red (Taylor’s Version) and Speak Now (Taylor’s Version) have all performed better than the originals.

This is largely due to the unwavering support from her fans, known as “Swifties”. They’ve embraced the new recordings, shaming anyone who plays the original “stolen” versions.

The power of Swifties

Swift’s loyal fandom are known for their high levels of participation and creativity. Fans have spent an extensive amount of time hand-making outfits for concerts, and discussing elaborate theories online.

Swift has a reputation for leaving clues, known as Easter eggs, in her lyrics, music videos, social media posts and interviews. There are fan accounts dedicated to analysing these Easter eggs, studying specific number patterns and phrases to uncover hints for what Swift might do next.

Swift and Taylor Nation, a branch of her management team, encourage these behaviours by rewarding fans for their participation.

For the upcoming release of 1989 (Taylor’s Version), Swift has unveiled a series of puzzles on Google, which fans must solve together in order to reveal the names of the upcoming vault tracks.

Swifties collectively solved the 33 million (yes, that’s million) puzzles in less than 24 hours. The games played a dual role - not only did Swift announce the vault track titles, but she’s reclaimed her Google searches in the process.

Swift’s fandom crosses generations. She’s a quintessential millennial, and many fans have grown up with Swift over the past two decades. Some have even started to bring their children along to the concerts, posting videos of them set to the bridge to Long Live.

She’s also found a younger audience on TikTok, a platform predominantly used by Gen Z. Affectionately dubbed “SwiftTok” by fans (and now Swift herself), users post videos to engage with other Swifties and participate in the community.

Swift’s songs are often used in popular trends. The release of Midnights last year had many dancing to Bejeweled and Karma, but Swift’s older catalogue has also gotten a good run. A remix of Love Story went viral in 2020, which helped a new generation discover her older music. Most recently, her song August has been used for running on the beach and spinning around with your pets.

She’s also closely aligned with young adult shows like The Summer I Turned Pretty, which has featured 13 of her songs throughout the show’s first two seasons. Swift’s music is so central to the story that author Jenny Han nearly dedicated the second book to her.

Swift continues to dominate the cultural conversation through her music, business decisions and legions of devoted fans.

Right now, Swift’s popularity is at an all time high, and it could be easy to dismiss this hype as a passing trend. But if these first 17 years are anything to go by, Swift’s proven she’s in it for the long haul, and worthy of our time.The Conversation

Kate Pattison, PhD Candidate, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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