SIX REVOLUTIONARY OUTBACK PHOTOGRAPHERS
They came from all over the world, steaming across the oceans on boats that entered Port Philip Bay, with black-rimmed glasses, leather satchels and scarves.
They were mostly modernists, mostly WWII immigrants, and mostly from Berlin and London.
In Europe they had been hamstrung by very little change in light, and were forced to explore the subtleties in shadow and texture from a European sun that didn’t shine as boldly and brutally.
The world was changing and this was a new country as far as old world art went. Artists no longer had to follow all these rules of painting St. Sebastian for the 1000th time, nor of photographing the same spring picnic scene on the Rhine. What if there was a new planet made just for photographers? Where the old rules of art and photography were all thrown out the window.
Enter the work of the Australian Modernists who showed us a country that was changing before our eyes but, until now, not before our lens. This new photography was about the tactile, about sense of self and your place in it. It was a map. You are here.
‘Remains of Cattle’, 1952
Bore 1, North Queensland
(c) Sidney Nolan/ National Library of Australia
In 1952, the Courier Mail asked the country’s most famous artist Sidney Nolan (he of the Ned Kelly paintings) to take a camera to North Queensland and shoot the effects of a drought.
Nolan arranged dead carcasses as though they were still alive, and the result was so powerful and confronting that no paper in Australia would print them.
Nolan’s message was clear. Death might be a taboo, but it’s also a certainty. A certainty that should see us take advantage of every single moment we have air in our lungs.
Nolan’s monochromatic images of livestock in various stages of decrepitude drew from his background as an artist. After all, he was at the vanguard of the Australian Modernist painting movement along with Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker, looking at new ways to represent the light that lay on their doorstep.
They called themselves ‘The Angry Penguins’ and they were intrigued by the rise of photography in the 1950s.
After photographing these unloved plates of the drought-sticken outback, Nolan returned to painting his bush landscapes with a new vigour, no matter what European city he happened to be in.
He may have been a stranger to the camera, but he was no stranger to the outback.
Before it was ‘a thing’, the Melbourne-born artist had already done a big lap with his wife and kid, trying to find “the real Australia.
“I wanted to deal ironically with the cliché of the ‘dead heart’; I wanted to know the true nature of the ‘otherness’ I had been born into.”
With easel at hand, the former WWII deserter was hell-bent on finding out what it meant to be Australian? What he was supposed to have been fighting for?
Shortly after his trip to the Gulf, Nolan took his family to Europe and never returned, although the outback still haunted him according to this diary excerpt recently printed in The Age: “I suppose this is the one landscape in the world I understand fully – I still find it beautiful, just as if I had seen it yesterday and not five years ago. I find it more than beautiful, I get a tremendous source of energy from it.”
It may have been a world of beauty and energy, yet ultimately it was too much for him to be immersed in each day. He’d glimpsed at the sun, he didn’t want to stare at it.
Culburra, South Coast NSW
(c) Max Dupain/ National Gallery of Australia
Young Maxwell was doing the Modernist thing well before the German migrants arrived in Melbourne during WWII.
As a 13-year-old Sydneysider he was obsessed with light and was largely self-taught, eking out any chance he could to escape the city and shoot in nature. In later years this passion would see him travel extensively on the bush tracks of Western Queensland and the Northern Territory.
If WWII had a deleterious effect on Sidney Nolan’s creativity, and forced him to question the futility of work, then for Dupain who served with the Air Force in Darwin, the war was a chance to express himself through hard work.
When he returned to civilian life, Max gave away his old meal-ticket job, shooting campaigns for ad agencies, because “Modern photography must do more than entertain, it must incite thought and by its clear statements of actuality, cultivate a sympathetic understanding of men and women and the life they live and create.”
It wasn’t enough for Dupain to cover the landscape, he believed it was all just a postcard unless there was some evidence of human interaction, a theory the Australian National Library refers to as ‘Vitalism’.
“Dupain was influenced by the vitalism doctrine, which held that a transcendent ‘vital force’ exists within living organisms. In particular, he admired the writings of DH Lawrence and Norman Lindsay, and the photographs of Laurence Le Guay. For Dupain, the beach was the obvious setting to portray physical vitality.”
In recent years, Max’s work has been acknowledged for its trademark compositional brilliance, with Juxtapoz magazine explaining, “The quality of light mimics his landscape pictures – sometimes harsh and surreal, with dream-like subjects and shapes.”
‘Shell House Journal’, 1954
Surf Coast, Victoria
(c) Helmut Newton/ LaTrobe Picture Collection
Introducing a Jewish refugee who learnt his chops in the outback, and then went on to re-invent global fashion photography…
Newton escaped the rise of the Nazi Party in the 30s and ended up in Singapore, where the young photographer became a gigolo. Not seeing much of a future in this, he moved to Melbourne and did five years with the Australian Army during WWII.
Shortly before his death Newton explained to Salon that his early years in Australia were the bedrock he built his style on – ”The point of my photography has always been to challenge myself… To go a little further than my Germanic discipline would permit me to.”
And the sprawling outback was just the place to do that. To have his creative boundaries pushed by a natural environment that was boundary-less. He was schooled in Berlin in the art of New Photography and saw his new home as the ultimate blank canvas.
He married a Melbourne girl called June, another photographer, who went by the arch-Australian name ‘Alice Springs’.
Although in his later years he became the world’s foremost fashion photographer, feted in Paris and London, it all started with an unlikely alliance with Shell Oil, photographing post-war nation-building projects throughout Australia, and the migrants who worked on them.
Art domo, Professor Helen Ennis recently described Newton’s “choice of everyday subject matter, the use of sharp focus, the arrangement of bold, simplified forms, and the favouring of dramatic vantage points…
“The worker masters the machine, even though he might be dwarfed by it – an image of workmen placing packing timbers under an absorber tower shows their mastery of a mighty piece of equipment. The ‘dignity of labour’ is very evident.”
Together with fellow ex-German New Photographer Wolfgang Seivers, Newton took industrial and architectural photography to a whole new global level.
And while his camera felt free in the wide open spaces, in his other life as a city fashion photographer in Melbourne, he found himself hemmed in by a much more conservative media and society than in Europe.
His true photographic passion was to imbue fashion with sex and power, and he was forced to flesh out his mysteries of the flesh back in Europe, where he realised his artistic goals and became known as ‘the king of kink’.
Upon his death, the New York Times summed up his approach to fashion photography: “Often in stark black and white, (they) were calculated to shock, featuring tall, blond, sometimes naked women in heels, perhaps illuminated by headlights or trapped in a dark alley. Models were depicted in ways that few readers expected.
So, how does his early work for Shell at the Corio refinery in Victoria, shooting refugee workmen compare with his later Vogue shoots of bondage-clad and riding-crop-wielding Fendi models in a Monaco hotel room?
Art critic Guy Featherstone gave a couple of answers in a piece he wrote for The LaTrobe Journal: His mastery of scale, light and shade, dramatic vantage-points and bold shapes is exemplified repeatedly in his photographs of the Geelong refinery.
“The workmen photographed in their working environment are just as much ‘models’ as the mannequins and nudes are ‘models’ in environments which give point to their poses or nudity.”
‘Worker, Bruck Textiles’, 1951
(c) State Library of Victoria
Wolfgang Sievers was obsessed with chasing the hyper-real landscape of the new country he called home.
Setting up in Melbourne, he travelled to shoot the industrial and architectural feats that were mushrooming all over Australia in the post-war years, but not before he did four years armed service in the scrub along the Murray River.
He befriended fellow New Photographer, Helmut Newton and in 1953 the pair of newcomers got the ball rolling with an aptly titled exhibition called ‘New Visions in Photography’.
According to the Victorian Museum, “His interest (was) in the relationship of man with machine, and of the machine with the landscape.
And he did this everywhere from Weipa to Broken Hill to Dampier to Groote Eylandt, holding a view-finder to his eye with one hand while he swatted mosquitos and horse flies with the other.
Like a good new Australian, the ex-Berliner stuck around to tell the glorious nation-building story, while the likes of Newton (and Nolan) fled to the bright lights of Europe and the creative cluster-bomb of the Swinging 60s.
As Aussie art critic Angela Jooste explains, “Sievers assisted in promoting post-war Australia as a progressive, modern industrial and commercial force on the international stage.”
Although it may not have been as sexy as fashion, Sievers had a job to do in the journalistic documentation of the massive plants, factories, refineries, ports and buildings that were changing the face of Australia.
Sievers was bound by light, of the German school that taught him to explore the form, function and humanity of real life, of what was actually going on in front of him in his adopted country.
He once explained the nature of his work, “‘Fiercely Australian but also fiercely European.”
“Later, Sievers became concerned with the impact industries such as mining had on the natural environment.
“This issue, as well as the increase in mechanised and computerised work settings reducing the need for people to perform many tasks, resulted in Sievers questioning his involvement as a photographer in the areas of manufacturing and heavy industry.
“Jorge Calado in Life Line wrote that ‘For Sievers, industry was beautiful, but goodness resided in the worker’. Whereas other photographers depicted machinery or industrial structures with the workers either missing or merely silhouetted, Sievers followed the Bauhaus ideal of celebrating the skill, talent and dignity of the individual worker.”
‘The Patterned Road’, 1937
South Coast, NSW
(c) Olive Cotton/ National Gallery of Australia
It’s difficult profiling the partner of someone more famous, as the person they share their bed with can overshadow their own independent work.
Such is the case with photographers Olive Cotton and Alice Springs, whose own impact was somewhat softened by the work of their more famous husbands, in this case, respectively, Max Dupain and Helmut Newton.
It would be easy to think that they were just hobby farmers, or muses, who occasionally used their genius husband’s camera gear behind the scenes and banged off a pic or two.
To think this about these two women would be an absolute travesty of justice for two of the finest photographers Australia has seen.
Olive came from the Sydney Photographers Circle, and she and Max were right in the thick of this new technique, shooting the changing face of towns, with the rise of the pub and the corner milk bar now challenging the church as the community focal point.
When she broke it off with Dupain – while other photographers were documenting the rise of the suburbs and man-made structures – Cotton decided to see how modernism could represent the outback.
She was determined to use these new techniques to give new shade, texture and light onto a timeless natural environment.
To give her even more hardcore cred, while the men in her circle chased fame, she moved out of the city and lived in a tent for three years down a lonely dirt road in NSW’s South West Slopes district.
She eventually moved to a farm and took up a job as a schoolteacher, which allowed her free time before and after work. The obscurity of the Cowra region also allowed her to concentrate on her vocation, rather than the distraction of being caught up in a city art scene.
When she passed away in 2003, the ABC said, “The pictures taken by Olive Cotton were audacious studies of light and shade… these were lovingly crafted after hours, when everyone had gone home.”
The Australia Council recently paid homage to Cotton’s output: “Patiently, she photographed Australia ‘s landscapes, trees, flowers and clouds.”
Cotton never stopped shooting, even though she could rarely afford to process her work.
In her 70s, she received a federal grant that saw her work revisited with an exhibition.
It was only then – after half a century’s worth of negatives were reprinted – that those in the small community of Koorawatha realised that the humble ex-school teacher was one of the true masters of 20th Century Aussie art.
‘Misty Morning’, 1908
North Sydney, NSW
Cazneaux Collection: National Library of Australia
Photographer Harold Cazneaux founded the Sydney Camera Circle, which could have been any group of photographic geeks meeting in a dark room with their new toys.
But he and his mates were different. They were driven by the motto of showing “Our own Australia in terms of sunlight rather than those of greyness and dismal shadows.”
Cazneaux’s distinct style became known as the Sunshine School, and it was a technique that defined the Australian landscape in tone.
Exhibit A, being the picture printed on this page, from the turn of the century, using new forms to document the changing face of terrace houses encroaching where the bush met the big smoke. It features a lone young figure walking into a future that was equal parts bright and prosperous, equal parts dark and terrifying.
Perspective and composition were everything to the man nicknamed ‘Caz’, and he preceded the rise of the Melbourne’s German transplants and Sydney’s post WWII artistic dandies by a good 40 years.
His most famous pic came on a trip to Wilpena Pound, when he captured an old and scarred gum that was thriving despite living in an inhospitable crater in the middle of the Flinders Ranges.
The red gum is still alive (the story of which featured in our photo annual two years ago) and has become a frequent stopover now known as The Cazneaux Tree.
This pic ‘Misty Morning’, is almost as iconic as his desert tree, this being the start of a modern century when new structures grew amoeba-like over the wild scrub that fringed Sydney’s harbor: a modern century that delivered daily conveniences that seemed trivial when compared to the spectre of the world wars it also produced.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography finally gave him the credit he deserved in 1979, with a retrospective on his Sunshine School that was the firmament from which all future Australia photography would be built upon.
“His frontispiece photograph for the first issue of the Home in 1920 used sunshine effects so successfully that it sparked a new trend in local photography.”