Greg Stoodley, K.C., 2018
Learning from slowness
Essay by Kate Warren, 2020
Greg Stoodley’s exhibition Slow is deeply grounded in a respect for and applied investigation into modernist photographic techniques, materials and processes. In particular, Stoodley has used the work of American photographer Irving Penn as not only inspiration, but as a means of understanding his own practice as a contemporary practitioner. Stoodley’s original exhibition conception of slowing down was a way to return to traditional techniques and processes of photography – carefully adjusted studio setups, medium format cameras, black and white film, and platinum printing processes. While the final outcome has necessarily changed from a physical to online exhibition, Stoodley’s approach nonetheless makes us think carefully about photography’s status and photographers’ choices today.
The ever-evolving relationships between photography’s technical capacities and its material qualities have been central to the medium’s cultural status. Penn was a photographer whose practices keenly reflected the shifting creative statuses of photography. The Irving Penn Foundation writes that: ‘At a time when photography was primarily understood as a means of communication, [Penn] approached it with an artist’s eye and expanded the creative potential of the medium’. The relationships and tensions between photography’s multiple modes – art, documentary, vernacular, technical, journalistic, commercial – continue to be felt today, and twentieth-century modernism was a key nexus in the evolution of these discourses. Moving away from Pictorialism’s imitations of paintings, much modernist photography embraced the medium-specific creative qualities of photography, and the rapid developments in photographic technologies, and in doing so created a canon of photography as subjective, fine art expression.
In this vein, Susan Sontag famously wrote that ‘nobody takes the same picture of the same thing’, as a means of distinguishing the subjective nature of photography from assumptions of detached objectivity. Yet in highlighting the subjectivity of photography, we must not dismiss the vital roles that repetition and similarity play in creating photography’s social and cultural impacts. As Daniel Rubinstein has argued, photography creates a ‘multiple and divergent notion of the subject which emerges not out of representation but out of repetition, reproduction and difference’. Photography became a truly social medium due to its repetitive and reproductive capacities, beginning with William Henry Fox Talbot. Repetition in photography is significant not simply in its technical mechanisms, but also in the visual catalogue of social signs that photography creates and continually re-animates.
This comes through strikingly in Stoodley’s exhibited portraits of friends, where he has taken clear inspiration from Penn’s catalogue of compositional approaches and material techniques. Far from pure mimicry, or nostalgic return, Stoodley’s embrace of historical predecessors like Penn imbues his contemporary subjects with a historical consciousness, a subtle frame used to activate the present as much as refer back to the past. I noticed this particularly in the photograph of Krystel, knelt on the ground and peering over her left shoulder towards the camera. She is positioned in front of a simple fabric backdrop, her face squarely in centre frame. Her gaze is direct but not confrontational, her face lit clearly but with subtle shadows creeping across her features. Like a good portrait should, it grabs the viewer’s attention even without contextualising information. It captures its sitter’s unassuming yet assured individual presence, while also hinting towards a collective consciousness, particularly through the slight tension that is present in the image between spontaneity and control, naturalness and performativity.
Later, I identified this particular pose and set-up as a reference to one of Penn’s photographs of actress Marlene Dietrich. Shot in 1948 the photograph represents an unusual example in Penn’s professional method of portraiture, which was usually characterised by a quiet, gently progressive atmosphere. Curator Maria Morris Hambourg reveals that, by contrast, the exchange with Dietrich was tense, with both subject and photographer vying for control of the situation.
Hambourg attributes the intensity of the final image to this encounter. While this reading makes sense, the compelling nature of photography is never bounded or reduced to historical specificity. Portraiture is a genre that makes explicit the tripartite relationship between photographer, photographed person, and the photograph’s viewer. As a social and cultural phenomenon, photography relies on all three actors in this relationship. Much has been written about the ‘decisive moments’ of photography – the way it captures a specific slice of time and freezes it. Stoodley’s photographs, including his reimagining of the Dietrich portrait, also remind us that this tripartite relationship is not just active in a defined temporal moment. The repetitive nature of photography – including its poses, gazes and compositions – extends the relationships between photographers, subjects and viewers across times, generations and social situations.
In Stoodley’s photograph of Krystel there are notable elements of materiality. The sitter is dressed in dense black, creating sharp lines of contrast against the more visually textual, crinkled fabric background. These contrasts would, of course, have come to the fore in the prints originally planned for the exhibition. Platinum prints in particular are known for their obvious materiality. Lacking a gelatin emulsion, the platinum lies directly on the paper surface, absorbing slightly and giving the prints a matte finish. While this physical manifestation of Stoodley’s exhibition has not been possible, the photographs presented online nonetheless communicate some of the artist’s core driving processes, albeit in unexpected ways. The paradoxical position that confronts Stoodley’s images can perhaps serve as a reminder to viewers about how to look at photographs. As the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated, many of us have been placed in contradictory positions of being forced to physically slow down, while concurrently thrust into online spaces even more than before. When the ubiquity and abundance of photographs online seems generic and overwhelming, returning to physical processes has been an important technique for many contemporary photographers. Perhaps an exhibition like Slow will similarly force us, as highly digitally constructed viewers, to reconnect with the process of looking slowly and deeply at photographs on our screens, even if they weren’t originally produced with that in mind.
Kate Warren is a Lecturer of Art History and Curatorship at the Australian National University
 ‘Irving Penn: Biography’, The Irving Penn Foundation, https://irvingpenn.org/biography.
 Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York : Anchor Books, 1990), 88.
 Daniel Rubinstein, ‘Photography as the Aesthetic Determination of Difference’ (PhD thesis, Birmingham City University, 2013), 8.
 ‘#310. Marlene Dietrich, New York – Audio Guide’, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/714758.
 See Ariella Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography (New York; Cambridge, Mass.: Zone Books, 2008).
Greg graduated CIT with an Advanced Diploma of Photography in 2014, after graduation Greg was offered a position at the Royal Australian Mint to photograph the National Coin Collection, where he worked from 2015-2019. He is currently continuing his studies at the ANU school of Art. Greg maintains his commercial photography practice as a freelance photographer, and has been an instructor at Photo Access where he has taught short courses in Studio Photography and Art Documentation.
1. Krystel, 2018, Silver Gelatine Print, 8 x 10 1/10 $750
2. K.C., 2018, Inkjet Print, 8 x 12 1/20 $500
2.(a) K.C., 2018, Platinum/Palladium Print, 8 x 10 1/5 $950
3. Bella, 2018, Inkjet Print, 8 x 10 1/20 $500
3.(a) Bella, 2018, Platinum/Palladium Print, 8 x 10 1/5 $950
4. Waist Coat, 2019, Inkjet Print, 8 x 10 1/20 $500
5. Arnett, 2019, Platinum/Palladium Print, 8 x 10 1/5 $950
6. Dixie, 2019, Inkjet Print, 8 x 12 1/20 $500
7. Richard, 2019, Silver Gelatine Print, 8 x 10 1/10 $750
7.(a) Richard, 2019, Platinum/Palladium Print, 8 x 10 1/5 $950
8. Saskia, 2019, Inkjet Print, 8 x 10 1/20 $500
8.(a) Saskia, 2019, Platinum/Palladium Print, 8 x 10 1/5 $950
9. Mana, 2019, Silver Gelatine Print, 8 x 12 1/10 $750
9.(a) Mana, 2019, Platinum/Palladium Print, 8 x 10 1/5 $950
10. Romana, 2019, Inkjet Print, 8 x 10 1/20 $500
11. Seated, 2019, Inkjet Print, 8 x 10 1/20 $500
11.(a) Seated, 2019, Platinum/Palladium Print, 8 x 10 1/5 $950
12. Top Hat, 2019, Inkjet Print, 8 x 12 1/20 $500
13. Michael, 2020, Platinum/Palladium Print, 8 x 10 1/5 $950
14. Seriden, 2020, Silver Gelatine Print, 8 x 10 1/10 $750
15. Marlene, 2020, Inkjet Print, 8 x 10 1/20 $500
15.(a) Marlene, 2020, Platinum/Palladium Print, 8 x 10 1/5 $950
16. Adam, 2017, Inkjet Print, 8 x 12 1/20 $500
16.(a) Adam, 2017, Platinum/Palladium Print, 8 x 10 1/5 $950
17. Self Portrait, 2017, Platinum/Palladium Print, 8 x 10 1/5 $950
18. Hunter, 2018, Platinum/Palladium Print, 8 x 10 1/5 $950