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Based on text from the original book: Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988
Gael Newton, 1988 Australian National Gallery


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Photographic illustration and the Documentary movement
in the 1940s and 1950s

The New Photography with its altruistic and ambitious aims to reveal the ‘abstract aesthetic charm’ of the world, also proved to be perfectly suited to product advertising used in illustrated magazines in the I930s. Pictorial professionals like Cazneaux in Australia and Edward Steichen in America developed a visual vocabulary for glamorising a range of subjects including film stars. Advertising as a separate, multifaceted industry accompanied a general growth in production after World War One but accelerated most after the Depression years of the 1930s.

The earliest fashion photographs were simple compositions showing pretty girls in frocks. In the late 1920s elaborate fashion tableaux developed for window displays by specialist designers like Harry Bhindof for the David Jones Store were photographed by Cecil Bostock. Soon tableaux were being created in the studios by a collaboration of photographers and coordinators.

Russell Roberts (b.1904) began selling advertising and organising the fashion photography for Ure Smith’s publications in 1931. Before the collapse of the automobile industry during the Depression, Roberts had handled the sales and promotional work for Chrysler Motors in Australia. For six months in 1927, he had worked in the headquarters of the firm in America and experienced the missionary zeal and scale of their promotions. Working for Ure Smith he quickly realised the potential for an advertising agency which could provide a range of services. Russell Roberts Pty Ltd was established in 1932 and by the time his studio work was included in the Contemporary Camera Groupe exhibition, the staff of designers and photographers had reached thirty(1). In addition to glamour studio work, Roberts’ studio was distinguished by more naturalistic fashion photography shot on location in the European manner pioneered by such talents as Martin Munkacsi (1896-1963)(2).

Among the many photographers who passed through the studio was Hans Hasenpflug (1907-1977) who worked there from 1935 to 1937, after his arrival as an immigrant from Germany in 1927. Hasenpflug taught himself photography and combined the new style of photographing models in action with the geometric design of the New Photography. Hasenpflug exhibited work in the sesquicentenary salon in the pictorial, commercial and portrait sections and was regarded as one of the moderns(3). Other work of his also appeared under the Roberts’ studio imprint which usually did not credit individual photographers. Hasenpflug would have been a likely contender for the Contemporary Camera Groupe, however he had moved to the Melbourne studio of Athol Shmith by late 1938.

Laurence Le Guay (b.1917) established a studio in Martin Place in 1938 and was accepted as a member of the Contemporary Camera Groupe. Le Guay served his apprenticeship in an old-style studio, the Dayne, and began exhibiting in Pictorial salons in 1936. As an independent he quickly developed an energetic style that often featured outdoor action fashion shots. Le Guay remained at the top of fashion photography in Sydney throughout the ensuing decades. His later works like the Ayers Rock fashion illustration and his Fashion queue picture of the 1950s represent a refinement of this genre. Le Guay also experimented with the montaged surrealist pieces that interested Dupain and others as the vogue for surrealism swept the magazines after 1935(4).

Surrealist imagery demanded a gift for simple but effective conjunctions of seemingly mismatched objects which had to have some pictorial and poetic or theatrical force. Dupain’s Shattered intimacy and impassioned clay of 1936 achieved a willing suspension of disbelief—the flesh of a female torso and a spiral shell meld into each other, suggesting a transcendental interchangeability of all matter(5). Other montages of the period now appear forced and pretentious.

Some of the qualities of surrealist imagery appeared in product advertising such as Dupain’s Hoover and Hardy’s Hose Company advertisements. Dupain introduced a sensuality virtually unprecedented in Australian photography particularly with his nudes of the 1930s and 40s. Sexual freedom, at least of the imagination, was part of the vogue for surrealism and psychology(6).

One of the most imaginative and adept of the specialised fashion studios was that of Athol Shmith in Melbourne. His career grew out of his publicity photographs taken as an amateur for a theatrical show in 1932, and developed through social portraiture to fashion shots after beset up his studio in 1933(7). Some of his portraits of later years owe a debt to the moody lighting of earlier Pictorialists like May and Mina Moore and Ruth Hollick.

Glamorous advertising work necessitated a reasonable studio establishment and as manipulation techniques and the complex coordinating of props developed, the larger studios became the training ground for younger photographers. Despite a certain ‘macho’ image which surrounded the illustration photographers in the 1930s, a number of women worked in the field.

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Olive Cotton (b.1911) joined Max Dupain, with whom she had shared an amateur interest in photography in their teens, in his studio in Bond Street, set up in 1934. Cotton quickly acquired technical polish and by 1935 an advertisement for a tea service became Teacup ballet with its mix of New Photography geometrics and surreal atmosphere. In 1938 Cotton was the only woman member of the short-lived Contemporary Camera Groupe showing landscape and form studies. Cotton managed Dupain's studio from 1941-1945 during his war service, as well as taking on war-related commissions of her own. Marriage and parenting after the war brought her city career to an end but in later years Cotton opened a portrait studio in Cowra and recently held a successful retrospective of her life-work(8).

Margot Donald (b.1923), who worked as a colourist at Russell Roberts’ studio, acquired expertise in photography during her training there. She produced sophisticated advertisements for My Joy Gloves around 1947 prior to her departure to London to further her career in English advertising studios(9).

As a result of the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, several well trained and cultured photographers immigrated to Australia. Margaret Michaelis (1902-1985) and Wolfgang Sievers (b.1913) both arrived in 1939. Michaelis trained at the Graphik Institute in Vienna and later worked in Spain with her husband, taking documentary photographs before the ascendancy of General Franco led to her immigration to Australia. Michaelis worked mostly in portraiture since few opportunities for the kind of reportage she had done in Barcelona were available. She did a number of commissions for the Gertrude Bodenweiser School of Modern Dance in Sydney. Michaelis deliberate and considered work was valued by her contemporaries despite a generally quiet profile in photographic circles(10). She was awarded a medal at the Australian Photography Salon of 1947 and had work published in the book recording this exhibition published by Oswald Ziegler.

Wolfgang Sievers came from a cultured family in Germany and aspired to become an archaeologist for which he improved his amateur skills in photography. After a brief period in exile in Portugal, Sievers returned to Germany to study at the Contempora College of Applied Arts in Berlin. Teachers from the closed Bauhaus School also taught there and Sievers learnt much about the philosophy of modern architecture from architect Erich Mendelssohn. The Contempora School functioned in part to provide short training courses in trades for those who needed to flee Germany. Hoppé’s book on Australia suggested the country as a suitable place to immigrate.

Sievers specialised in industrial photography from his arrival and set up a studio in this field after Australian war service in 1945. His approach to industrial assignments reflected the hopes of the Bauhaus for a union between workers and industrial production which would retain the dignity of traditional craftsmen(11). Sievers’ photographs often show workers calmly pursuing their tasks with satisfaction, unawed by the monstrous scale of their environment. In industrial coverage, Sievers pioneered imagery that became the basic patterns adopted by later generations(12).

On arrival in Australia Sievers had found that few photographers understood his approach to industrial and architectural subjects, with the exception of Dupain, whose direct contact with the European sources of the modern movement in architecture was via illustrations in books. After World War Two, Dupain turned to architecture and industry for his main commissions as a response to the influence of the Documentary movement. This movement was named and articulated by film maker John Grierson who believed it had a high moral and social purpose(13). The faith of the New Photography in the moral value of revealing the beauty and order in the forms of the world remained an integral aspect of Dupain’s understanding of actuality as a subject(14).

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The Documentary movement

The sesquicentenary was commemorated with other uses of photography than the salons of the Pictorialists. Oswald Ziegler published a massive illustrated tome that functioned as the Picturesque Atlas had for the centenary(15). The layout was similarly progressive, using montage and graphic design intercut. Many of its photographs illustrating Australia’s industrial and agricultural progress were drawn from newspaper archives, wherein the bones of the nineteenth-century views trade resided. The colour photography was commissioned from Frank Hurley. A few Cazneaux mining photographs appeared uncredited but the art photographer was obviously not required. In the perverse tribute to the Aboriginal people, described as a ‘dying race’, much use was made of Aboriginal motifs. Central Australia had become fashionable, replacing the bush as a national myth. In 1934 Walkabout magazine was first published by the Australian Tourism Board.

A different attitude to the role of the photographer was evident in overseas magazines such as LIFE. Their photoessay layout combined room for personal vision as well as information about the world(16) In Perth in the mid 1930s, Axel Poignant (1906-1986) was excited by the photo-essay and made some experiments with the format. By 1938 he was producing images showing the lessons learnt from the New Photography in the use of angles and close-ups to communicate a reverence for the subject. This attitude came partly from his Theosophical beliefs that stressed the unity of all creation, and some from the stimulating ideas of friends like Vincent Serventy and the Naturalist Club and the active left wing political circles in Perth at this time(17).

Poignant turned increasingly to the subjects that represented the essence of Australia, the outback and its inhabitants, its flora and fauna. The body of his work which shows the Aboriginals, the old fossickers, and the rich variety of native animals suggests that Poignant may also have seen the subjects as embodying purity or the lost innocence of a pioneer era(180).

Poignant formed a friendship with graphic artist and photographer Hal Missingham (b.1906) who had returned from study and work in Europe to his home town of Perth in 1940. They held a joint exhibition in 1941. The rhetoric of the catalogue was not so bold as the Contemporary Camera Groupe’s claim to prophetic modernity but stated that the work was in the spirit of the New Photography and the social aims of the Documentary film. Alex King, writing in the foreword, presented photography as a revealer of the world through its ability to make the viewer see things clearly and freshly as a child. Its role in a frenetic machine age was potentially regenerative(19).

The Contemporary Camera Groupe exhibition had been the earliest to present exclusively a Modernist approach to photography. It included abstraction, montage, surrealist themes and landscapes with some of the poetic overtones of Pictorialist idealism. The Missingham-Poignant Exhibition in Perth was about things, people and places presented simply and directly with concern to communicate specific qualities and arouse interest in the original subject as much as admiration for the independent Pictorial photograph. In this spirit of hoped for direct communication from viewer to subject via the vision of the photographer, Poignant and Missingham presented one of the first demonstration of the Documentary philosophy in art photography. The mediation of the photographer’s vision distinguished their work from simple record photographs.

>>>  footnotes

In Sydney in 1946 Laurence Le Guay began publication of a new photography magazine called Contemporary Photography. The AP-R. published by the KODAK Company was still popular and had begun to include a program of historical articles of great value, but its market was the amateur and the commercial studio. The magazine had given support to the New Photography and the Documentary movement but a need was felt for a magazine more in tune with contemporary photographers both professional and amateur. The new magazine also included historical features: In 1952 Cazneaux reprinted his old Sydney work dating from 1904 for a special issue(20) which recast him in the current documentary spirit. The new large, brighter prints made by Cazneaux, brought out the human interest of the subjects that was lost in the small vintage prints made before World War One. Keast Burke at this time rediscovered the great Holtermann collection and as the old negatives were reprinted as modern enlargements these also attracted interest from the Documentary movement enthusiasts. A lineage for local Australian work was suggested by the stimulus of the publication of historical works.

Younger photographers interested in the reportage of the scene around them used Contemporary Photography as a showcase for their work. Many of these like David Moore, David Potts, Geoffrey Powell and Axel Poignant wished for the kind of extended essays being featured in the overseas illustrated magazines such as Life, Picture Post and the Observer. Walkabout could have taken on such a role but avoided the wide ranging and more dramatised photo essays of the great overseas models.

Dupain was introduced to the Documentary philosophies of John Grierson through an edited anthology of his writings and through contact with Damien Parer, a young photographer working in his studio, was a committed exponent of the Documentary film(21). Grierson opposed art-for-arts-sake work and presented a functionalist and social realist philosophy which allowed that art was the by-product of a job well done when it had some higher aim of helping the public understand the world around them.

Grierson’s concept of the creative treatment of actuality appealed to Dupain as a path between romantic subjectivity and literalism. War service during World War Two took him to New Guinea in the camouflage unit but it was his transfer to the Department of Information in 1945-1947 that provided Dupain with his first real opportunity to develop his Documentary philosophy. He travelled extensively, making images for use in the promotion of Australia. One of his best known photographs The meat queue was made for an assignment on queuing for rations. It is a powerful scene in which the compression of space and the monumental shapes of the dark dresses convey the fatigue and tedium of the queues. The women appear to be almost in place of the carcasses of meat in the butcheries. It is not a compassionate image, Dupain’s interests were not in social conditions but in the revelatory moment.

In 1948 Sydney Ure Smith published a monograph on Dupain. The images and text give priority to the Documentary spirit. It was the second only such publication on a photographer as an artist since Kauffmann’s 1919 monograph. In the foreword Dupain described the selection of images as 'my best work since 1935'. The surrealist works and form studies of the mid-1930s were excluded as Dupain had dropped the fashion and advertising work from his studio. The monograph also contained 'Some Notes about Photography', one of Dupain’s earliest efforts at sustained critical writing:

Nearly all the photographs in this volume have been made with the intention of securing a fragmentary impression of passing movement or changing form; in the portraits and figures 1 have tried to save the nonchalance and spontaneity of mood . . . 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 create and live(22).

Dupain’s monumental Sunbaker of a decade earlier was also included in the monograph, beginning its path towards the iconic status it now has. It was little published or exhibited during the war years or afterwards until the 1970s.

Its simple geometry and dynamic symmetry had perfectly expressed the energy of Modernist formalism. Made at the time of the sesquicentenary, the Sunbaker was also an image of ownership of the land; the white man is nearly black and safe within his environment that he can lie face down. However, the Second World War carried away much of the confidence of the Modernists expressed in this image.

Dupain returned to his studio in 1947 and increasingly sought work in architectural illustration and industrial commissions forming long relationships with leading architects such as Harry Seidler and companies like CSR. The construction of the Sydney Opera House in the 1960s and 1970s provided him with an opportunity to cover, at his own initiative, the building of the greatest monument to the same kind of pure forms at the heart of his own photography. Portraiture, figure and landscape studies continued to form an important part of his personal work throughout the I950s. People tend to disappear from Dupain’s work in later years and his formalism becomes more austere. His photographs seek to extract a quintessential essence from the forms of diagonals, ovals and cylinders held in dynamic tension that first appeared as his formal signature in the I930s.

In 1947 Oswald Ziegler published Australian Photography 1947 as the first of a planned annual series covering the best of Australian photography. It was a substantial book with pages of quality illustrations drawn from the works submitted for the accompanying exhibition. It was in the tradition of both the old Pictorial salon catalogues and the newer annuals such as US Camera Annual. Pictorial work was included as well as technical categories but the book validated the importance of the documentary photographers and professional illustrators.

Cazneaux considered the book a wasted and spoilt opportunity by its support for what seemed soulless or ugly modern photography(23). The Documentary followers no doubt felt the amateur Pictorial work was trite and sentimental. The photographers in Australian Photography with a social bent included David Moore (b.1927) (son of the Modernist architect) and painter John D. Moore, who began his professional career in Russell Roberts’ studio in 1947. The vigour and naturalism of Dupain’s Documentary and architectural work attracted him more than the advertising of Roberts’ studio that was struggling to recover from the loss of activity and manpower during the war.

Moore worked in Dupain’s studio from 1948 until 1951 doing a variety of architectural, commercial and industrial assignments. In his own time Moore photographed the slum areas of Sydney in around 1948. He also photographed the foreshores, harbour and city, emphasising the richness of this environment. In some ways his body of work provided a contemporary parallel to Cazneaux’s earlier tribute to the old Sydney areas. Cazneaux wrote some print analysis criticisms for Contemporary Photography and found Moore’s pictures of slum children appealing(24). Other images, such as the picture of a mother and new baby and an older woman in a Redfern tenement from which they faced eviction, were not in the picturesque mode that Pictorialists could respond to. The image did appeal to Edward Steichen who included it in The Family of Man exhibition in 1955.

Moore made extended photo-essays, including a series on the turning around of the ship Himalaya in Sydney Harbour in 1951. He was able to arrange a working passage to London with the Orient Line and hoped to travel on to Canada to work in the stills department of the Canadian Film Board. On arrival in England, Moore was able to sell his picture story on the Himalaya to the Sphere magazine and editors also responded to his slum pictures. His career as a photojournalist was set and he spent the next seven years working as a freelance photojournalist for the leading illustrated magazines. He returned to Australia in 1958 and has been based here since, although many assignments have taken him on extensive travels.

Lack of local outlets for photojournalistic work led other photographers to Europe. David Potts (b.1926) worked in Russell Roberts’ and Laurence Le Guay’s studios in Sydney in 1948-1950 before leaving for London and a career as a photojournalist. Prior to his departure Potts photographed the real-life characters associated with Documentary work accompanying David Moore on weekend excursions. Potts’ work was animated and often emotional in mood(26).

Other photographers were more socially committed in their Documentary work than the elegant photojournalists. Edward Cranstone (b.1903) and Geoffrey Powell (b.1918) were involved with left wing politics and stressed the dignity of work and the plight of the socially disadvantaged(27). Cranstone’s commissions for the Department of Information depicted workers with the heroic proportions, gusto and vitality of the early German New Photography(28).

Axel Poignant was able to eke out a precarious existence through the sale of pictures in the 1940s. A major undertaking during these years was his 1952 series of photographs recording the Aboriginal people in the far north Liverpool River area. Poignant’s commitment to his work with the Aboriginals went even deeper than the conscious search for the grim urban realities of Sydney by his younger contemporaries. He hoped that to see sensitive pictures would generate understanding and in this attitude he was close in spirit to the beliefs that led to The Family of Man exhibition.

Poignant found no outlet in Australia for his Liverpool River stories, although a children’s storybook Piccaninny Walkabout was made during his northern travels and published in 1957(29). As Bush Walkabout it is still finding a response in contemporary families.

List of illustrations used in the original publication (captions may be abbreviated):

P.115: Russell Roberts Studio: Fashion Illustration for Valerie Hats, 1936

P.116: Hans Hasenpfug: Rhapsody in satin, 1937

P.116: Laurence Le Guay: Fashion queue, 1960s

P.117: Laurence Le Guay: Ayers Rock fashion illustration for Courtlands. 1959

P.118: Max Dupain: Impassioned clay. 1937

P.119: Athol Shmith. Vivien leigh. 1948

P.120: Olive Cotton: Teacup ballet.1935

P.121: Margot Donald: Patricia. c.1946

P.121: Wolfgang Sievers: Gears for mining industry, Vickers Ruwolt. 1967

P.122: Axel Poignant: Aboriginal girl and new born baby. 1942

p.122: Hal Missingham: Mother's knees. 1941

P.123: Max Dupain: The meat queue. 1946

P.124: Max Dupain: Sunbaker. 1937

P.125: David Moore: Pyrmont Bridge, Sydney. 1947

P.126: David Moore: Redfern Interior. 1949

P.127: David Potts: Henley Regatta: 1954

P.128: Edward Cranstone: Civil construction corps worker. c.1943

P.128: Geoffrey Powell: Self-portrait, bailing water. 1947




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