A Slice of Life
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commentary on issues in politics, culture, environment and technology
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01 Dec 08 Bending the truth

Morning a Passchendaele, Frank Hurley

Morning a Passchendaele, Frank Hurley, 1917

There has been some concern in the media about the digital manipulation of photographs and possible legal and ethical implications. Manipulated images can of course be used to misrepresent the truth in many ways, but this kind of manipulation is really nothing new.

Frank Hurley was Australian photographer, film maker and adventurer. A recent ABC documentary gave fascinating insights into Hurley’s work. 
View the documentary here.  Hurley participated in a number of expeditions to Antarctica and served as an official photographer with Australian forces during both world wars.  Hurley became frustrated during the war as capturing the images he wanted was difficult and turned to making composite montages.  He was widely criticised for the practice.  Although it is undeniable that his photographs are spectacular they are often quite implausible.

The defence of Rorke's Drift, Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville, 1880

Defence of Rorke's Drift, 1880

As an official war photographer, Hurley was expected to capture “the truth”.  Hurley’s work attracted significant controversy and has been criticised for diminishing the work’s value as an accurate historical record.  Other war artists who chose painting as their medium exercised much more artistic freedom.  This was also the case with artists from previous generations who created heroic epics.  In Hurley’s time photography had not really come into its own as an art form, and the idea that the camera never lies has persisted.  In fact, all photographs are manipulated in some way during their production; Hurley just took things a step further.

It makes you wonder what Frank Hurley would have made of Photoshop and other digital tools.  With even a basic knowledge of such things anyone can create montages like Hurley’s with a fraction of the time and effort and skill involved.  “Traditional” and digital photography are now all but indistinguishable in quality. “Purist” photographers who dismiss all things digital should recognise that the digital medium is just another set of tools available to artists.  If unable to accept this, perhaps they should go back to banging rocks together.  

Digital photography and graphics are still to achieve the status of a recognised art form.  It faces the same misconceptions that applied to early photography.  If a work is intended as art, manipulation is the name of the game.  Documenting “the truth” can be left to forensic photographers and photo finishes in horse races.

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28 May 08 Police remove Bill Henson’s nude photographs

The roslyn oxley9 gallery sent out a media release on the 23 May, 2008 saying the following:

Statement on behalf of Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery and Bill Henson

After much consideration we have decided to withdraw a number of works from the current Bill Henson exhibition that have attracted controversy. The current show, without the said works, will be re-opened for viewing in coming days.

Bill Henson is one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists and is internationally respected. His works are held in every leading art institution in Australia and are included in the collections of a number of the world’s most prestigious art museums. The Art Gallery of New South Wales and the National Gallery of Victoria have both recently held a retrospective of 30 years of the artist’s work.

Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery will remain closed while the current exhibition is re-hung.

Someone had complained to the police and the Vice Squad removed the photographs on the grounds that the photos were pornographic.

Since then, controversy has raged on TV, in newspapers and on radio in Australia.

What are the photos? They are nude photos of 12 to 13 girls and boys. The photography is, in my opinion, very artistic. Shadows are used to show what the artist says he intends. To evoke the vulnerability and fragility of that stage of adolescence. Coming from the light to the dark or vice versa. The shadows also act to cover most of the sexual parts of the bodies, although not all. I don’t know if that was the photographer’s intention. But he has been showing such photos around the world and in Australia for many years. He says this stage of life fascinates him. He also takes many other photos of subjects not so controversial.

Recently, the Australian Government held a Twenty 20 summit including the experts in all fields of life’s endeavours. Many ideas were floated and presented. It was seen to be a success. But the Creative stream of the conference, headed by Cate Blanchette, released their statement saying that this was censorship of art.

Now, I don’t think it is censorship of art until the matter has been through the courts. If the works are said to be pornographic (which I don’t think) then the gallery and the artist has committed a crime and the works should not be shown. It has not been the Censorship Board which has made these decisions.

What bothers me most is that a girl or boy of that age is not in a psychological or emotional condition to be able to give informed consent to being models for the photographer. Of course their parents gave consent. But is that right? I don’t think I would.

The photographer is 45 and therefore in a position of power during shootings. I’m not at all suggesting that the young people were not safe in this environment. The photos portray the youths as almost asexual really. Now I don’t know what control the parents or youths have after giving consent to the photo shoot. Do they have control of the finished shot? Presumably this would have to be the photographer’s decision.

I know nudes of all ages have been portrayed in art. But in photos? And in these times of hypersensitivity to pedophiles and child sexual abuse and exploitation? Of course there are the really sexualized images of young girls in advertisements but these girls are clothed. I hate it, but I wouldn’t censor it.

I don’t think these Henson photos are sexualized. But it still disturbs me.

Well, the matter is in the courts now, so I guess not much more can be said.

But I’m interested in your view. I cannot show any images here. They are copyrighted. Many galleries do not allow viewing of larger images however

Written by contributer, Jenny Campbell from multifarious mushrooms

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