For 130 years, RMIT has been training people to see the world by training them in photography.
Now a new RMIT Gallery exhibition Photography 130: Behind the Lens – 130 years of photography (10 March – 13 April) looks back on that history and explores how students and staff have captured and contributed to the shifting cultural and political climate in Australia.
Exhibition curator Associate Professor Shane Hulbert talks about some of the key images on show, that reflect the development of photography and its teaching at RMIT in the past 130 years.
1. First photography tutor
RMIT has been teaching photography now for 130 years and during that time it has made a significant impact on the way that people have viewed and photographed Melbourne, and the way that they have worked with photography around the world.
So I thought we would start with Ludovico Hart, RMIT’s very first tutor of photography back in 1887, and his image of the Victorian Fine Art Gallery – what is now the National Gallery of Victoria.
Looking at this particular image there’s a whole range of different paintings and sculptures and artworks that Hart has seen as being something worth recording and preserving in the history of Melbourne and its relationship to art and creativity.
Light is one of the principal sources of how photography is constructed and this image is shot with natural light, we can see all the light coming through the windows, you can see that one half of the room is darker than the other half of the room.
There are various aspects of the way that Hart’s done this. There would have been some manipulation in the dark room when he’s made these prints. During the course of the exposure, he would have blocked out light from certain parts of the frame to create that dimensionality and that depth that we can see through here.
The whiteness of the statues scattered through the frame and the depth that we get staring down a corridor is something that Hart has emphasised through the use of light.
The result is a way of stretching out the frame and positioning the viewer as someone who is able to imagine being in that space. In the late 19th century our relationship to photography was very new and people were not necessarily accustomed to, or acclimatised to, seeing the world through photographic images in the way that we are today.
2. Women behind the lens
Photography was one of the foundation disciplines of the Working Men’s College back in 1887, and women were welcome to enrol in those classes – and not just photography classes but any of the classes that were offered.
This is an interesting historical document that reveals women were also photographers and were being trained in all aspects of photography in exactly the same way as men. Here we see multiple women, probably almost a third of the class, involved in outside work using large-format cameras which were very heavy and very technical to operate.
This image was taken in the 19th century, probably in the first decade that RMIT started teaching photography. At the time, you weren’t able to go down the street and buy film, or a camera, these things had to be constructed.
People had to purchase lenses and tripods (these are surveyor tripods) and then organise the glass plates and coat them with chemicals, make the exposure, and then process those plates and then make those prints. It’s laborious and very skilful and relies on knowledge of optics, mechanics and chemistry.
So it’s a really interesting photograph and historical document of the way that photography started at the University and its democratic process, through which people were able to learn photography.
3. Evolution of the medium
This photo was taken in the middle of the 20th century, and demonstrates the way that photography was taught and the way that people were engaging with medium, which is very different to the way we practice photography today using digital equipment.
This image is a wonderful example of how photography has evolved over the years, and reinforces that RMIT was teaching the subject as a practical hands-on experience.
We often think about photography being that dichotomy between spending the time in the light taking images – certainly back then – and then spending hours and hours in a darkroom devoid of light, working to make those images come alive.
4. Changing views
In this photograph, we’ve gone from the very cumbersome equipment in the previous outdoor image to being outdoors with cameras you can hold by hand.
A couple of fairly significant technological advances allow that to happen, including the miniaturisation of devices that started in the 1940s, and that eventually led to computers and microchips.
The speed of the film meant that you were able to hold a camera by hand and photograph something with the duration of a fraction of a second, rather than multiple seconds. It meant that if you could hold your hand steady enough, which is not difficult, you were able to capture a still image without the use of a support.
In this image, we can see one tripod and an instructor pointing at something, and the class all holding onto their own cameras and photographing it in different ways. It’s interesting because you can see two or three different ways of composing and viewing an image.
The man on the far right is using what looks like a twin lens camera, looking down onto the viewfinder, so his experience of framing is very much about looking into the device rather than through the device, which is what the woman kneeling down next to him is doing.
Then the third woman along is looking through the tripod – that’s another way of composing, and she no longer has that freedom of movement to be able to very quickly change her direction or change her relationship to the subject.
It’s quite a compelling image as it demonstrates the both the progression of photography and the way RMIT was teaching photography at the time.
5. Commercial creativity
In the 1980s and 1990s RMIT had a global reputation for commercial professional photography that was really unsurpassed anywhere else in the world. The number of students who graduated during that period is a very important part of the narrative of photography studies at the University.
Stuart Crossett did a series for the AFL on different football motifs and this is a slightly humorous image of a Richmond player in a supermarket buying cat food.
In the Photography 130 exhibition I tried to encompass a broad scope of different ways that photographers work and how their training at RMIT prepared them for industry.
Here is an example of how advertising photography tells very simple stories through icons and motifs. This image really shifts the idea that somehow photography is only – even in that professional realm – a technical achievement, when in fact it’s highly creative.
What we also see in this image is the ability for photography to extend itself right through the frame. The perspective and depth control in Crossett’s image is really quite impressive.
Take a good look and you can see how a photographer makes decisions about placement of forms, and how they relate different subjects together. That becomes part of the story you can get from a single-framed image.
6. Social icons
Right from the beginning of photography portraiture was seen as an important subject to point the lens at, not the least because of its immediacy. Unlike painting, a camera can very quickly depict an instant expression or fleeting moment.
In this fabulous image of social icon Iris Apfel by Daniela Federici, her vibrant and engaging personality is very much in evidence. With the focus on her big smile and eyes, her character just shines through.
What makes this such a compelling image is how much of the sitter’s character has been captured so precisely, due to the particular the way the lighting creates such a three dimensional sculpture of Iris and her amazing clothes.
A trick with portraiture is that when the sitter looks directly into the lens it creates a conversation between the sitter and camera. In this case the focus is on Iris’ expression and her warm and engaging face.
The neutral blue toned background, which is cool, is somewhat contrasting to the warmth of the sitter and perhaps an unusual choice on the part of the photographer, but in this instance it works really well.
7. Scientific pursuit
Science photography ran for many years parallel to other disciplines of photography at RMIT, such as the art, the journalism and the commercial professional photography. Science has an interesting story to play out in that history because it operated in various capacities through the departments in the University.
Scientific photography allows us to see the unseen world. With photography a moment is firmly recorded on film forever, or through light and digital technology. Using fast shutter speeds allows us to do things like stop bullets or photograph someone jumping in the middle of the beach so we can see the water splashing.
Photography’s ability to stop time has been there right from the beginning but scientific photography extends that through scale and through things that are seen but unseen. And so by using different types of film, cameras and lighting, scientific photographers are able to capture things that we simply do not see.
Take this photograph by Phred Petersen. Something as simple as heating up a frypan over the top of a flame seems like a rather arbitrary thing to want to photograph, but when you capture it like this you see the flames and the heat, and these are all aspects of the cooking process that are usually invisible.
This photograph has an element of enquiry and it can answer questions about the world around us, questions that sometimes we don’t even know whether we’re asking.
This is a very interesting image by Clare Rae. Here we see the photographer inserting herself into the photo as a way of exploring themes and concepts, and it’s obviously a work by someone who has been trained in fine art photography.
Clare is not necessarily showing us how we see something, or telling a story. What’s she’s concerned about is an idea. As an artist, she’s been exploring ideas about femininity, feminist theories, gaze and balance for some time.
In this photograph, Clare herself is climbing the walls out of frustration. It’s an emotional response to things that she’s been reading about.
Clare has solved some of those inquisitive questions by experimenting with different framing devices, motion, and ways of inserting herself into the frame. This image is one of a series, several of which are the Photography 130 exhibition, in which she experiments with different poses and other people in the photographs.
The resulting works emphasise the way that she’s come to a discovery and realisation about what she wants to convey.
Phuong Ngo produced a wonderful body of work before this one called My Dad the People Smuggler. His father supported and helped smuggle many people out of Vietnam after the war into Australia. He was and still is seen as a hero to his community, which is very different from the contemporary political narrative.
Here Phuong is using a combination of photography and video to explore different ways of telling stories. Using a very simple device, Phuong has come up with a story that he wants to tell and he does so with a video of someone folding a Vietnamese note into different objects and shapes.
The wonderful thing about narrative is that it doesn’t matter where you start it in a story, there’s always something comes before it, and there's always something that comes after it. Whether it’s through video or whether it’s through a single frame, those questions, while often asked, are often unanswerable other than through your own understanding or your own assumptions.
Phuong is a very powerful artist and he uses these devices intentionally. He doesn’t enter into these debates lightly, and you know he’s very knowledgeable about the complexity of the issues that he’s dealing with. He uses his own cultural identity as a means through which to tell those stories without necessarily passing judgement on anyone.
10. Digital realm
When Lisa Saad won the Australian Institute of Professional Photography’s Photographer of the Year Award in 2016 with this work, it caused a bit of controversy.
Lisa is quite emphatic that everything in this work was photographed, yet it’s highly digital and obviously digitally manipulated.
The work imagines a world that does not exist, and its construction of the ‘anonymous man’ in all of these different locations, as well as the different iconography and the environments, are all fantasy. Yet all the individual components are photographed, and then manipulated through Photoshop.
One of the reasons art schools are so relevant in contemporary society is that we train people how to see the world. It doesn’t matter if a graduate spends the rest of their lives being an artist or not, they are trained in seeing the world in terms of composition and light, and are highly skilled in observation, enquiry, and reason.
Photography graduates can transfer these skills into so many other aspects of their lives, and that’s wonderful. And that’s exactly what we have been doing in for the past 130 years at RMIT – training people to see the world by training them in photography.
Story: Evelyn Tsitas