Sydney Morning Herald Column

Shadow catchers

Published July 2, 2020
Olive Cotton 'The photographer’s shadow' (1935)

In Adelbert von Chamisso’s gothic tale, Peter Schlemihl, the hero sells his shadow to the devil in exchange for a purse perpetually filled with gold, but all the wealth in the world is not enough to compensate for the horror he inspires when his lack of a shadow is noticed. For “shadow” we might read “soul” – which is the commodity Schlemihl’s contemporary, Goethe’s Dr. Faust, trades with the devil.

Now think of all those ethnographic accounts of tribes that believe the camera will steal their souls. I’m not sure we should laugh at this idea because the image captured by the camera is a frozen, dead moment while the faces and bodies we relate to in daily life are always in motion. This is why we often feel that a photograph (usually of ourselves) bears no relationship to the person we know. Attractive people can take ugly photographs, and some ugly customers are amazingly photogenic.

Patrick Pound, ‘The image pool’ (2016)

Shadow catchers at the Art Gallery of NSW is a photographic exhibition that looks at the relationship between the camera and the shadow considered in the broadest metaphorical terms. As the shadow is intangibly attached to the body, the photographic image remains intangibly connected to its subject. Photographs have frequently been referred to as “shadows”. Indeed, the Chinese call the movies “electric shadows”.

In the words of curator, Isobel Parker Philip: “the exhibition adopts the shadow, along with the mirror and the body-double as a symbolic stand-in for the photographic image.” That may sound terribly deep but it seems to forget that these ‘adopted’ shadows, mirrors and body-doubles exist in the show asphotographic images.

The proposition therefore is: three kinds of photographic image act as symbolic stand-ins for a photographic image. Can something be a stand-in for itself? Such a weighty philosophical problem and we haven’t even gotten past the introductory wall label!

Perhaps Parker Philip contends that only a figure or a solid object can be turned into a photographic image. Perhaps we’ve entered the sphere of Platonic thought, whereby all the things of this world are no more than the shadows on a cave wall, cast by ideal forms. More likely we’ve entered that familiar realm called Too-Clever-By-Half, where so many contemporary art events make their home. When an exhibition is presented as a conceptual tangle it’s easy to get tripped up.

Self portrait with Leica, Ilse Bing (1931)

Shadow catchers is a show full of speculations about the nature of photography but there’s nothing resembling a clear line of argument. It may be best to consider it a collection of curious images, assembled in the same way Patrick Pound puts together a photo-sequence, using found images with a serendipitous common theme. It’s fertile territory because the sheer quantity of photographs floating around ensures an endless web of affinities.

Appropriately enough, Pound features in this show with an installation called The Image Pool, which includes 120 photos, most probably scavenged from ebay, featuring a circle or a sphere. It’s quirky, it’s funny, but hardly more  than an infinitely extendable bowerbird hoard.

Shadow catchers is the result of a thorough – almost heroic – rummaging through the permanent collection to find appropriate images. The problem is that it often feels as if items have been included simply because they ticked an appropriate box by featuring either a shadow, a mirror or a body double. This is a familiar trait of permanent collection shows no matter how artful the theme. On the plus side it doesn’t mean the display lacks visual interest. The selection includes some remarkable works, regardless of whether or not they fit into the conceptual boxes constructed by the the curator.

Ian Dodd, ‘Mirror image’ (1975)

Look for instance at the cover image of the slender exhibition catalogue. Olive Cotton’s The photographer’s shadow (1935), shows a male figure with sunglasses lying on the beach. His face is engulfed by the dark, feminine outline of the photographer, his mouth opened wide in what could be a yawn or a scream. It’s almost a spoof of a horror movie, as a sleeper wakes to find himself menaced by a dark figure wielding a blunt object – in this case, a camera – that infamous stealer of souls.

The picture takes on added interest when we realise the man is Max Dupain, who snapped what is arguably Australia’s most iconic photo, The Sunbaker (1937), which features a man lying face downward on the beach. It’s as if the sunbaker has turned over and found himself (literally) overshadowed by a woman. Should we see this as a wry act of feminist self-assertion? Cotton and Dupain would marry in 1939 but separate two years later.

John F. Williams, ‘St. Kilda, Melbourne’ (1975)

There is also a sense of self-assertion in Ilse Bing’s Self-portrait with Leica (1931), in which the photographer uses a mirror to capture a double image of herself in full face and profile. In a single glance she seems to be looking at the viewer and at her own reflection, hinting at both public and private selves. Bing had studied to be an architect, an interest reflected in the precise geometric design of this photo.

Bing’s modernism bears comparison with Ian Dodd’s Mirror Image (1975), an old-fashioned, tonal still life dominated by a bright, blank, oval-shaped mirror. On this occasion the photographer has not only removed himself from the picture, he has given us a mirror that reflects nothing, as if a crack has opened in space and time.

Another image that has stayed lodged in my mind is John F. Williams’s St. Kilda, Melbourne (1975). Through a rectangular hole in a metal roller door we see a pair of skinny legs with sports shoes, standing in some kind of court. Although the figure is cut off at the thighs we catch a glimpse of the great Australian sporting obsession through a frame of industrial concrete and steel. Few Australian photographers have had a sharper eye for social satire than Williams (1933-2016) whose work was both humorous and immensely thought-provoking.

Soda_Jerk. ‘After the rainbow’ (2009)

Most of the larger, more elaborate photos and installations are less suggestive than these singular images, but Soda_Jerk’s After the Rainbow (2009) is a stand-out. Taking original footage of The Wizard of Oz, the duo have allowed the 16-year-old Judy Garland to step out of the film and see herself years later in her forties. When middle-aged Judy sings: “The winds grow colder. Suddenly you’re older,” teenage Judy turns and flees. She has stepped onto the other side of the mirror, escaping the fictional space of the cinema to confront her future incarnation. It may be terrible to lose your shadow to the devil, but it’s just as unnerving to meet a shadow of your former self.



Shadow catchers

Art Gallery of NSW, 22 February, 2020 – “until 2021”


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 18 July, 2020