THE SCULPTOR'S PHOTOGRAPH

22 October - 8 November 2014

Opening Night | Thursday 23 October  6-8pm

Emma Hamilton

The Sculptor’s Photograph seeks to interrogate the relationship between sculpture and photography. Mimicking the practice of Constantin Brancusi, who photographed his sculptures, Emma Hamilton’s photographs present her own view of his works through the camera lens. Taken in black and white film, the photographs harness light and shadow to create a dramatic alternative set of ‘documentation’. The images become works in their own right, revealing moments that we cannot see within the physical work.

Hamilton has photographed Brancusi's works in a reconstruction of the artist's studio in Paris, his photographic prints in the archives of the Pompidou Centre and travelled to Romania to capture The Endless Column.


THE SCULPTOR'S PHOTOGRAPH

Inside the volume of a lens

Within the thickness of a lens, the work has perceptively shifted: transmogrified. The space of this volume has brought about a subtle distortion, bending rays of light to its will. These photographic depictions are somehow irrevocably altered from the works I see in front of me. They are mediations of themselves. In documentation, the sculptures have become stilted, but seductive. The filters of lighting and editing have made new surfaces of these objects.

Brancusi said of the professional documentation of his sculptures that while the images were ‘beautiful’, they did not show his works.[1] He decided to address the problem of documentation by undertaking the task himself. His friend and photographic mentor, Man Ray, was somewhat dismayed by Brancusi’s attempts at photography, labelling them ‘amateurish’.[2] Brancusi’s images are often blurry, or overexposed. Yet these qualities capture latent characteristics in his works. Blurring becomes movement, shadows and multiple exposures speak of doubling, and the glare of light from a polished bronze surface almost obliterates an image entirely, evoking a blinding momentary reflection.

I have operated in the manner of an after-image of Brancusi, examining the conditions under which we view his work; observing, recording and dismantling the different elements of his oeuvre through the camera lens.

In the latter part of his career Brancusi produced no new forms, instead choosing to repeat and perfect those that he had already created. The traditional sculptural technique of casting lends itself to such repetition. Within Brancusi’s work, photography presents another mode of production through repetition. His photographs are repetitively printed, altered through exposure time, close cropping and re-photographing. In certain images his editing disrupts our ability to know what we are looking at. Space falls in on itself and (fore-, middle-, back-) ground become uncertain.

Sometimes a trace of his enlarger frame exists on a print as a photogram casing around the image, not as a slight to be cropped out. Remnants of the physical process of photography are integral to this sculptural photographic practice. They echo the bronze pours that selected patrons were invited to attend in Brancusi’s studio, which highlighted the physical task of sculpture through the spectacle of molten metal. The glowing liquid bronze is a material of light, recalling the alchemy of the darkroom. Through his photographic practice, the artist divulges the similarities between casting mould and negative, giving value to the inversed form/image.

Endless Film

When you encounter the Endless Column it is usually in the form of an image or text, communicated as a somewhat mythical seminal work. The authors of these images and texts know that you will (most likely) never see the column with your own eyes, and often talk about the column with dramatic descriptiveness. Here the image is better known than the work and its context. The fluctuating sense of scale as you move towards the column and the changes produced by weather are things that cannot be conveyed through these mediums, however little is discussed about the wider social context of this work in Târgu Jiu, Romania.[3]

While the 30-metre height of the Endless Column is less imposing than it would have appeared when installed in 1938, the Column remains a majestic presence within the city of Târgu Jiu. Through photography the sculpture can be reinstated with its intended imposing height, appearing taller in the photographs I took at the site that it did with my naked eyes. The manipulation of the lens and the flattened photographic plane has enabled the ground to shrink away beneath the Column, and the banalities of park benches and rubbish bins to melt away into the inconsequential. It is in photography that the work stretches further towards the infinite space of the sky above it.

The Column – of course – is not endless. It speaks of the possibility of the continuous. Edward Steichen, who commissioned an earlier, smaller version of the Endless Column for his garden, tried to overcome this problem by not photographing the base or pinnacle of the column.[4] I have extended his idea, by photographing the Column in sections over an entire roll of film. Within the film, geometrical fragments of the work are suspended in the transparency of the material. If the ends of the film were to be joined the Column, in that form, would be endless.

Brancusi’s actions of photographing – and subsequently bequeathing his works, photographs, tools and studio to the French state – are another attempt at endlessness. Through these strategic decisions his work is preserved, living beyond the artist’s death.

Vitrine

While Brancusi’s works have been correctly placed as per the artist’s instructions (as they were positioned on the day of his death) the viewer is not. We must be content to circle the periphery of the studio: to peer through glass. We are unable to stand in the lines of sight from which Brancusi wanted his carefully orchestrated clusters of objects to be seen. In transforming his studio into ‘vitrinised’ space within a building, our access is external to these points of view.

Reflections of the surrounding architecture, trees and people crowd the glass through which I view Brancusi’s works. What emerges at certain angles of sight is instead a collage of depths of field, an overlapping of interior and exterior space, and a confusion of positive and negative forms. These phantoms of exteriority at times hinder, and at others galvanise, a dynamic viewing experience.

I move around a corner and indirect light flattens these indistinct layers, and the glass of the architectural vitrine recedes into nothingness, performing its role of invisibility. But only for a moment, until a viewer behind me takes a photo with flash and I am silhouetted on the glass. The ghost image of this moment produces its own layer.

The distance formed by the glass surrounding the studio produces a temporal, as well as spatial, obscuring. Brancusi’s entombed works are in danger of stagnating. Reflections on the glass walls endeavour to make this, instead, a space that interacts with its site.

Archival reflection

The photographs arrive in stacks, their protective coatings gleaming with the reflections of the overhead fluorescent lights. The direct shine of these lights means I cannot see the images from most viewpoints. Their cloaking in fragments of stark white reflection signifies the presence of the protective covering, and discloses the fragility of the photographs. Certain images are drawn out by this glare, their dramatic light and shadows reactivated.

The kindly Pompidou staff suggest I would take better photos if I remove the plastic first. (I am reminded of May Ray’s dismay in Brancusi’s photographs.)

As I slide the first photograph out of its protective transparent sleeve I am surprised to find it is a matte object. Nevertheless, the surfaces of Brancusi’s polished sculptures translate as shiny, aided by the dim reflection of the overhead lights that survives even on their dull surface. I lay them out individually, flat on the table surface to be viewed from above. Through Brancusi’s lens, his sculptures possess nuances previously unseen in their physical manifestations.

These photographs are now objects, subject to the manipulation of my camera lens. Without the possibility of a return visit to the Pompidou archives, the images begin to take on invented qualities in my mind. The line blurs between his images and my re-photographed versions. Do the fragments of reflection belong to his photograph or are they an additional layer introduced in mine?

Continuous image

For Brancusi an artwork never ends, it exists without a point of completion. His seminal works, such as Bird in SpaceThe KissSleeping Muse and Leda, came into form many times throughout his life in different mediums and scales: no one single iteration privileged over the others. This project is a re-view of Brancusi’s photography in the digital age, continuing the renewal of his oeuvre.

The current location of Brancusi’s studio at the Pompidou Centre is one of several sites it has occupied in Paris. As the context within which we view his works changes, so too do the conditions under which we view it. The archival incarceration of his work is both to its advantage and detriment, but above all produces a viewing experience in which the materials of archival conservation participate.

Emma Hamilton, 2014.

[1] The Column is one of several works by Brancusi commissioned as a World War One memorial for Târgu Jiu. The ensemble is positioned along an axis through the city. The works were nearly removed by Romania’s brutal Communist regime and needed considerable restoration after a decades-long period of neglect once Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship fell.

[2] William Tucker, The Language of Sculpture, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974), 138.

[3] Paola Mola (ed.), The White Work, (Italy: Skira Editore, 2005), 11.

[4] Paul Paret, “Sculpture and its Negative: The Photographs of Constantin Brancusi,” in Sculpture and Photography: Envisioning the Third Dimension, ed. Geraldine A. Johnson (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 107.


This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body. This project is supported by the 2014 City of Melbourne Arts Grants Program.

 This project has been assisted by the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body.

This project is supported by the 2014 City of Melbourne Arts Grants Program.