The camera is primitive, but the results sparkle, writes Robert McFarlane.
JUST when other photographers are deserting film for the instant delights of digital photography, Anthony Browell has reverted to a pinhole camera fashioned from plywood, copper and brass.
Browell's primitive creation uses a tiny aperture in the front of the camera to allow a faint amount of light to travel from the subject to the surface of the film, or light-sensitive paper. It's a slow process that requires long exposures of several minutes (made by simply removing and replacing a brass cap). The results, however - as seen in Point Light Gallery - are both subtle and spectacular.
This is photography completely uncommitted to the moment. Through the use of exposures that take minutes, Browell's subjects - portraits, nudes and landscapes - are suspended into timeless attitudes. A female nude on a deserted beach becomes, during the several minutes of exposure required, almost translucent as glittering highlights from the shoreline appear to shine through the woman's limbs.
The portraits, however, are the biggest surprise. Browell achieves extraordinarily fine detail with his pinhole camera. (The size of the aperture is crucial - too small a hole can result in diffuse images, too large affects focus.) Each print also radiates a soft, full black and white tonality.
Browell's image of photographer David Potts sitting in front of a light-dappled wall, shot this year, is a fine rendering of this impassive pioneer of Australian photojournalism. Children, one imagines, would be difficult to photograph during the long exposures demanded by pinhole cameras, but Browell's image of his grandson Harry, peering from the window of a rustic shed, has a haunting vulnerability.
During a long career as one of Australia's most accomplished editorial photographers, Browell claims to have worked with almost every kind of camera. "The pinhole camera," he says, "has revived my interest and curiosity in photography. You don't so much as take photographs but divine your subject. Because there is no viewfinder you have to imagine someone (within the frame).
"I set the camera straight and try and get the head in the middle of the frame, otherwise it distorts. I sometimes also ask the subject to look through the camera towards infinity. You [then] have to let it happen and it does. When you go into the darkroom and finally see [the picture] it is riveting. You couldn't get this result with an ordinary camera."
It is just possible that pinhole photography is a reaction against the sheer efficiency with which today's digital cameras capture fleeting moments of life. Browell's latest photographs are a timely reminder that, as the late David Moore once argued, photography should also address what he coined the soft spread of time.
On the evidence of Aussies All at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, the late Rennie Ellis was almost omnipresent among the nation's good, bad and beautiful.
There is a strong diarist touch to many colour images - from Alan Bond in bed in luxurious surrounds, to a sprinkling of personalities at the Melbourne Cup and Weavers, an artless 1981 moment showing a middle-aged man having his hair brushed by a naked woman. Ellis also photographed an unclad Carol Jerrems during a tender, golden Degas moment in 1970.
Present in almost every picture is the emotional aftertaste Ellis left with his subjects - an inevitable smile at the ebullient photographer's affectionate presence or occasionally an uncharacteristic reserve, as in his fine 1970 portrait of artist Rex Battersby.
Looking at Ellis's photographs on show, it seems he enjoyed being jointly acknowledged as both photographer and a well-known Melbourne personality. When I finally discovered a photograph in which an Ellis subject is observed apparently undisturbed - like an impeccably groomed Andrew Peacock with then wife Susan in 1969 - its historical value soared for me.
There is also a sense that this selection of Ellis photographs is personality driven - from Elle Macpherson pictured in a lame promotion for the AFL to the inevitable gaggle of mini-celebrities at the Melbourne Cup. Perhaps there will be a future exhibition of photographs, possibly black and white only, showing the late Ellis in a deeper, more timeless light.
Part One is a quietly amusing selection of documentary photographs by Karl Sharp at Summer Hill's elegant Red Door Gallery. Sharp makes a virtue of gently satirising Australian life - from surreal sousaphone players at the Sydney Opera House in 1998, to a dark horse wandering into a men's toilet at the 1996 Royal Easter Show. Sharp's career to date has mainly consisted of photographing the humble cycles of daily life, mostly for state and federal libraries. Part One is a celebration of Sharp's respect for the anonymous human moment, without alteration or undue emphasis.