Interview with Curator Shaune Lakin, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

The world is beautiful: photographs from the NGA collection showcases works from the 1920s to the present day from the NGA’s extensive collection. Rare images by the great names in photographic history feature, including Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Olive Cotton, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman and many more.

The precise technical decisions made by the photographers are evident in the works as each moment is carefully captured. Based on the camera’s proximity to the subject, intimate and strong relationships are formed, as seen in the variety on display. Close up and long distance shots demonstrate immense skill in the production of photographs that inspire curiosity and wonder. Viewers will observe the beauty of the world, re-imagined through the perspective of the photographer. We discuss the exhibition with Shaune Lakin, Senior Curator of Photography at the NGA.

A: How did you formulate the idea to name the exhibition after Albert Renger-Patzsch’s book, The world is beautiful?
SL: After thinking about the idea of an exhibition of key works from the collection and then looking at a huge number of candidates, we realised that there was an interesting story in 20th century photography that had not really been told yet. That is, the different kinds of relationships photographers develop with their subject, and what the meanings or implications of these relationships is to the experience of looking at a photograph. So while there have been exhibitions looking at things such as the close-up, microscopic photography, or photographs of the universe, we liked the idea of putting together an exhibition that examined the way the camera can get up close to its subject and can then progressively move away from it. So this exhibition takes the viewer on a journey, beginning with extreme close-up views of botanical specimens, and then moving further and further away from the subject until, after 100 or so photographs, we are looking at images of the open sky and of transcendental phenomena. Some of the thinking behind the selection of works and the logic of the exhibition comes from Albert Renger-Patzsch’s great book, especially his idea that the subject has its own essence, and his proposition that the job of the photographer was to make sense of that essence in a way that only photographs can.

A: What are some of the fundamental themes/areas explored by the artists in the show?
SL: The exhibition looks at the ways that photographers relate to their subject. We have divided the exhibition into three sections – the close up, middle distance and far away. One of photography’s fundamental attributes is its capacity to adopt a range of relationships with its subject, based on the camera’s physical proximity to it. Indeed, one of the most basic decisions that a photographer makes is simply where he or she places the camera. The pictures in this exhibition literally take you on a photographic trip, from interior worlds and microscopic detail to the cosmic: from near to far away.

A: How significant do you think photography has been as a medium of communication for the artists?
SL: Photography has become our primary means of communicating with each other. With social media and the proliferation of digital platforms, we all create and share photographs at a scale that is unprecedented. While photography has been with us for over a century and a half, we think it is possible to say that for the first time photography has overtaken the written word as our medium of choice. So there has never been a better time for us to consider the ways that artists have used photography to communicate with others. This exhibition focuses on the ways that photographers have actively engaged with their subjects – whether a plant, a person or animal, a street scene or a night sky.

A: How was it to select and curate the works? What were some of the challenges?
SL: The key strength of the National Collection is with 20th century photography. With this in mind, we decided to focus on photographs taken over the last 100 years. But given the strength of this part of the collection, the challenge was what pictures to select against those that would be left out, as well as who should be included in any account of 20th century photography. It goes without saying that each picture had to stand on its own as an exceptional example. But in order to be selected for the exhibition, it also had to tell us something about the ways that photographers actively engage with their subjects.

A: What do you hope that viewers will take with them after they observe the works?
SL: Every single picture in the exhibition is beautiful. While not all of the subjects are beautiful, the photographs are always things of great beauty in themsleves. We want to focus on beauty at the moment; we think we should remind ourselves that beauty does indeed exist in the world, and that photographers are very good at finding it. This is one of the great attributes of photography. Because it has a particular relationship to the real world, we tend to consider photographic images in a slightly different way than we would a painted or drawn image. Photographs can make us see and feel about things in particular ways. Much of photography’s power comes from this, it’s why we often find them so moving.

Sara Sweet

The world is beautiful: photographs from the NGA collection, until 10 April, National Gallery of Australia, Parkes Place, Parkes ACT, Canberra, 2600.

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1. Cindy Sherman, Untitled #92 from the series Centerfolds, 1981. Chromogenic colour photograph. Purchased 1983. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.