Thursday, 7 February 2008

Role Play: Photographic Portrait Exhibition at the NGV

Role Play: Portrait PhotograhyNGV Level 3 Until 6 April 2008

A small, but thought-provoking exhibition and one which definitely merits a visit if you are near the NGV and have half an hour to spare.

The photographers concentrated on the "role playing" aspect of their sitters, and the portraits are divided into three broad groups: allegorical, theatrical/celebrity and portraits that illustrate social typecasting. I found it interesting to see the very different approaches taken by nineteenth-century and contemporary photographers.

The Victorian photographer Oscar Rejlander undertook genre work and portraiture at his photography studio. His contribution to the current exhibition is "The Virgin in Prayer" (1857) for which he posed his model to emulate the delicately beautiful "Madonna in Prayer" by Sassoferrato, which is part of the NGV's permanent collection.
Oscar Rejlander was a painter before he switched to photography, and he always attempted to push photography beyond documentation and into the realm of High Art. He maintained that the photographer was not any less qualified than the painter to represent the piety of the Virgin or any other "noble subject". (He didn't mention the kiddie porn that he called Erotic Poses, using street children and child prostitutes as models.)

It has been said that: "before photoshop, there was Rejlander." He pioneered the use of photographic manipulation and retouching and he created elaborate montages, the most famous of which is "The Two Ways of Life", an allegorical picture in which a young man is shown sinful pleasures on the one side and virtuous ones on the other. This picture was much in the vein of the allegorical paintings which were so popular at the time.

Henry Peach Robinson was another Victorian photgrapher who portrayed allegorical subjects, in the manner of the Pre-Raphaelites, whom he admired. "Elaine watching the shield of Lancelot" (1859) was one of his illustrations for Tennyson's poems.
"Elaine the fair, Elaine the loveable …", indeed! Elaine the gormless would be a much better description in my view. I have never had any patience with that silly young woman. Just look at her mooning over the shield of the arch-cad Lancelot.

William Wegman (1943 - ) takes a much more light-hearted approach: he likes to dress up and photograph his two Weimaraners, Man Ray and Fay Ray. I really liked Fay Ray as the hippie Jane Fonda character from "Barefoot in the Park". (I suspect he named her after Fay Wray, who screamed so famously in the original King Kong.)
The celebrity photographs are all of people who are celebrated for actually achieving something other than going to nightclubs, sniffing coke and wearing their underwear on the outside. (No offence, Britney and Paris!)

There are some iconic shots of people like Garbo, Noel Coward, Katherine Hepburn and Luisa Casati, but the one that grabbed my attention was a haunting study by Giséle Freud of Virginia Woolf, the famous profile emanating an air of aloof introspection.
I also liked the series of wardrobe stills of Ava Gardner modelling the various outfits she wore in "On The Beach". It seems that the critics all remarked on how well she acted and how unglamorous she looked in the film, but they must have been looking at a different Miss Gardner – to me she is glamour personified.
They don't make actresses like the screen goddesses of the fifties any more! Oh, well, autres temps, autres moeurs … you can’t expect high-octane glamour from women who want to be called actors and don't seem to own a hairbrush.
The last section was perhaps the most interesting, with portraits and composites purporting to illustrate various "types" from the era when phrenology was still considered scientifically valid.
There is a montaged dual portrait by Nicholas White, of Ellen Tremayne, who lived as a man for most of her life. She is standing beside her alter ego Edward de Lacy Evans: champion ploughman, mining captain, married man and father. The mind boggles.

She was married three times in her Edward Evans persona : her first 'wife' was one Mary Delahunty, who left the marriage in 1862. No, not to take up her seat in the State Parliament, but to marry Lyman Oatman Hart, an American mining surveyor in Daylesford. Evans' second 'wife' died of tuberculosis in 1867. When her third ‘wife’, Julia Marquand, gave birth to a child in March 1878, Evans registered herself as the father. She died in 1901 in Melbourne.

I also liked the 1850s photo, by an unknown American photographer, of two boxers squaring off. I can just see the photographer told them to hold still for sixty seconds! The boxer on the left reminds me irresistibly of Dame Edna asking a member of her audience: "Who does your hair, Dear? The Council?"

Finally, there is the dramatic picture by Davies & Co. of the stage magician, Dr H.S. Lynn, with his head neatly tucked under his arm in the approved fashion of headless ghosts everywhere. This gives an entirely new meaning to the concept of "having his head screwed on properly"! Play: portrait Photograp[hy (NGV P{ublication)

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