A bigger picture

Room 24, Gallerie dell’ Accademia, Venice

Sarah Lee has just been explaining to me why she prefers rangefinder to SLR cameras. More versed in portraiture, working part-time for The Guardian – where a commission may take her from Parliament to a prison in the same week – she seems, in telling me this, to realise that somewhere along the line there must be a spatial component to what she does.

Perhaps it’s her fascination with people as the subject of her work that drives her technological choices. An SLR sees via the lens, so what you see is what you get; but with a rangefinder, parallax lenses do the focusing and the viewfinder, with a hairline frame set in it, allows you to be aware of the space around, even though it won’t be captured. But crucially, when people are a key aspect of the image, it’s possible for Lee to see them moving towards the frame – which for her is an essential part of the final composition.

Here, in a busy room at the Venice Accademia, that prior intelligence allowed her to create this image, its three subjects ­momentarily isolated from the crowd around- a bit like the child Mary there, walking up the steps alone in Titian’s 1538 ‘Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple’. Lee says she was merely intrigued by the intense focus of the woman, the distraction of the man and the louche style of attendant in the room beyond, but she’s doing herself a disservice.

There’s a metaphorical parallax going on here, Titian’s perspective drawing the eye down to the door where a new image layer manifests, Vermeer-like, to the seated girl beyond. It’s nice to think that Brunelleschi’s first peephole perspective experiment in front of his Duomo in Florence is still being alluded to in a modern day camera; that Titian and now Lee are both part of his legacy; and that all three are ultimately intimating a life beyond the frame.•