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[Influenced by] mugshots

Some may not consider the mugshot to be an art form, but the frankness and unchoreographed nature of these photos often cuts to the heart of a person in a way that more produced photos do not. In particular I am a huge fan of the mugshots taken in Australia in the early 1900s, of which the above are all examples.

About 2,500 mugshots were taken by the New South Wales Police Department photographers between 1910 and 1930. And in fact, there is currently an exhibition of a large selection of these surprising works in the Sydney Livining Museums, running through February 28, 2015.

Curator of the exhibit, Peter Doyle, said the photos suggested that compared with the usual mug shots, the cops in New South Wales allowed the subjects to pose themselves, concocting a “potent alchemy of inborn disposition, personal history, learned habits and idiosyncrasies, chosen personal style, and physical characteristics.”

For me, this goes to the heart of the tradition of portrait photography, something I have a great interest in along with large format cameras (which were used to take these photos) and the history of the Australian prison system, dating back to the late 1700s. So for me, these are a great inspiration on many levels regardless of whether they were intended as art or not.



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[Influenced by] Dead Souls

Marc Chagall is well known for his paintings, but fewer people may be aware of this series of etchings. Chagall began making etchings in 1921. After moving to Paris soon after, Ambroise Vollard attempted to commission a set of etchings for a deluxe “livre de peintre”. Chagall was open to the commission but suggested Gogol’s Dead Souls (Les Ames Mortes) as an alternative text.

In the end, Chagall created 96 etchings to illustrate the novel between 1923 and 1927. It may not be his most famous work, but I was lucky enough to see an exhibit of the original etchings in Rome a number of years ago, and found the freedom in them to be striking. As Franz Meyer said in Marc Chagall: His Graphic Work:

“This entire world of stupidity, malice, and selfishness is rendered transparent through humor…. It is a liberating force which discloses the deep stream of exuberant life behind all the figures in the novel. Everywhere, running through all the comical elements, and borne along by a sort of inner joyfulness, there appears the fantastic, rich, inexhaustible reality of Russian life.”

The etchings for the Dead Souls, executed between 1923 and 1927 and printed in 1927, were stored in Ambroise Vollard’s warehouse. But his untimely death, and Chagall’s flight from German-occupied France kept them from being published until 1950 when an edition of 285 was produced, each signed by the artist. To this day the series remains a great modern masterpiece, highly sought after by collectors. For me, they embody the freedom and tactile beauty of the all-but-lost art of intaglio etching.


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[Influenced by] The Naturalists

I have always loved the work of the naturalists: those artists who dedicated their lives to bringing to life the most intricate details of the plants an animals around us. The Birds of North America was a ground breaking work by John James Audobon, as were the works of artists such as Robert Hooke, Maria Merian and many others. The Temple of Flora, a collection of extraordinary works by numerous artists is another great example of this genre.

For the most part, it’s a lost art form. Most of the naturalists were living and working in the 1600s – 1800s. But Walton Ford is my favorite example of what I like to think of as a “contemporary naturalist” who creates giant, life-sized watercolors. His works are clearly in the style of artists like Audubon, but often with an unusual twist, and darker undertones. The life-size aspect of his works also adds to their impact. His image shown here of the elephant, for example, is two stories tall.


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[Influenced By] The FSA

The Farm Securities Administration (FSA) was created by President Roosevelt in 1935 as part of the New Deal in an effort to combat poverty during The Great Depression. As part of the program, the government hired a group of photographers to go out and document what was happening across America. Not only was this an unprecedented undertaking by the American government, but it resulted in some of the most influential and compelling photographs, ultimately propelling the art of “street photography” into the limelight and inspiring a new generation of art.

Among the most famous photographers to come out of the FSA are Walker Evans and Dorthea Lang whose photographs are shown here. The work they did was not only striking, but was instrumental in bringing about change in governmental policy during this difficult time in the US. Lang filled countless notebooks with her images, notes and quotes from the people she met and sent them back to Washington to serve as her “reports.”

In fact, Lang went on to create a lifetime of compelling works, long past her time at the FSA. Her work, and the work of the other FSA photographers remains a source of inspiration to me and many others. There is also a great documentary out about the life of Dorthea Lang called Grab A Hunk Of Lightening, created by her niece as part of the PBS American Masters series. A coffee table book of the same name was published in 2013 by Chronicle Books.


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