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SHADES OF LIGHT online

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

CHAPTER 13       PHOTOGRAPHIC ILLUSTRATORS

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Problems for creative professionals in the 1950s:
the Six Photographers exhibition

In 1947 the Institute of Photographic Illustrators was formed in Sydney as 'the first group of specialised cameramen to be organised as a society in this country'. Their aim was to 'raise the standard of photography in Australia and to encourage a creative approach in the use of the camera in advertising and illustration'(1). The new group obviously felt there was a lack of appreciation of their profession, both from their employers, the public and the traditional salons.

The fifteen exhibitors at the first exhibition in 1949 were mostly Sydney professionals; Athol Shmith represented Melbourne and by the second exhibition in 1950, Wolfgang Sievers had also joined. The group also benefited in 1950 from the participation of their first and only woman member Margaret Michaelis.

Unlike the Contemporary Camera Groupe of 1938, the Illustrators focussed primarily on their professional work. Younger members, David Potts and David Moore, with aspirations to photojournalism, showed some personal documentary work. As well, Max Dupain and Laurence Le Guay, vice presidents of the group, and Noel Rubie, included some documentary and uncommissioned works in the first show.

Advertising and illustration work had, by the 1950s, become a major industry. The individual photographer's control over design and approach was increasingly subject to direction from specialised advertising departments. Professional female models were also a part of the scene. Agencies tended to be in awe of overseas trends in fashion photography and wanted locals simply to copy such models. However, the professional photographer's creativity and skills were still the lynch pin on which the result depended, and they began to seek higher remuneration in these years.

Studio equipment was also becoming more complex and costly. The gradual use of colour transparencies(2) and strobe lighting would, by the 1960s, increase studio costs to such a degree that young photographers could hardly set up as Cazneaux had once done from a home studio with a few standard cameras.

In May 1955, a smaller group of photographers held a brief exhibition in Sydney simply called Six Photographers. They reasserted the importance of subject matter rather than the stylishness of fashion and advertising. Gordon Andrews (b.1914), Max Dupain, Kerry Dundas (b.1931), Hal Missingham, Axel Poignant and David Potts formed the group and had been meeting since mid 1954 to discuss and criticise each other's works. The statement accompanying their first and only exhibition stressed the need to make 'unstaged, spontaneous and personal recordings of observed things and human behaviour', in opposition to the slickness of commercial work (3).

The Six Photographers exhibition was reviewed, but the same old comments were brought out as had been said of Pictorial exhibitions, and of the earlier Contemporary Camera Groupe, in the refrain that photography in the right hands was undoubtedly an art(4). It seems that no critical approach had been developed which avoided the minute formal analysis of Pictorial salon reviews, without falling silent in front of documentary or illustration work, There seemed to be no way of advancing the discussion by dealing with what the images said, for example, Axel Poignant's powerful Aboriginal portraits passed without comment.

One of the few perceptive writers of ability in these years to comment on photography from outside the profession, was H. Tatlock Miller. He had found the Photographic Illustrators' exhibition of 1949 lacking in the power of photography to record real life(5). However, he also contributed to Ure Smith's publication, Alec Murray's Album of 1949(6). This had no aspiration to real life but the surreal mood of the images found favour with Miller. Alec Murray (b.1917) had begun to make a reputation as a glamorous social portraitist(7).

The breakaway spirit of the Six Photographers exhibition was not restricted to Sydney. Dupain had approached Helmut Newton (b.1920), Norman Ikin (1925-1962), Dacre Stubbs, Athol Shmith and Wolfgang Sievers to form a Melbourne group and it was originally planned to include their works in the Sydney exhibition(8). Their interested response initially indicated some dissatisfaction with the progress of the Photographic Illustrators as an increasingly trade-professional body. However, the Melbourne photographers tended to do less work of a personal nature, and the Documentary movement also had less adherents in Melbourne at this time.

Contemporary Photography magazine folded in 1950, closing one of the few publication outlets for documentary work. One of the last efforts of publisher, Laurence Le Guay, was the picture book Portfolio of Australian Photography, (1950)(9) which liberally included Pictorial, commercial and documentary work as well as five articles by the respective apologists Cazneaux, Dupain and salon organiser, Leo Lyons. The A.P.-R also folded in 1956, having in its last years supported Documentary and Pictorial philosophies by its historical articles. Its role had been matched for some time by the Australasian edition of Popular Photography published locally by James Coleman (b.1915), which became Australian Photography in 1963.

The Australian content of Coleman's magazine increased steadily from 1955 (when a fashion illustration by Le Guay became the first Australian cover) until 1961. After this a policy of 'all-Australian' content was introduced(10). Keast Burke also became editor and art director at this time and the magazine became the official journal for the Australian Photographic Society. Thus the commercial, Documentary and Pictorial groups somewhat coalesced but the unresolved problems of a common viewpoint for creative professionals and creative personal photographers, remained.


The Family of Man and the 1960s:
an end and a beginning

The showing of The Family of Man exhibition in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide in 1959, had the effect of stimulating creative photographers of the now frail Documentary school, and of enlisting a new generation. Edward Steichen mounted the exhibition from his position at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This was the last evolution in his influential career as an organiser of photographic exhibitions into a museum curator-promoter. The exhibition included 503 photographs from sixty eight countries culled over three years from a selection of over two million. They were predominantly taken by professionals and well-known photojournalists. The photographers were, however, subservient to the exhibitions theme of the unity of all peoples in their basic emotions, work and family life.

The Family of Man exhibition was accompanied by a substantial catalogue that extended the impact of the show when it was sent on an extensive tour to sympathetic countries. It was labelled 'the greatest photography exhibition of all time'(11). Many early photographic salons had exhibited even greater numbers of images but the printing of photographs onto large panels up to mural size gave The Family of Man works an unprecedented impact, even given the role illustrated magazines had played through most of the century.

The Family of Man pictures were amplified by lines of poetry or short quotations, which dealt with the Human Condition, Other than these words, the exhibition put to the test the notion that photography was itself a universal language. The response in Australia lent support to this hope, for no other previous photographic work, or event, generated such a response, especially outside the world of photography and art circles. The Sydney showing at the David Jones Gallery resulted in a front-page photograph in the Sydney Morning Herald of 3 April 1959. It showed singing poet, Joyce Trickett, recording her impressions of the exhibition on tape for the Blind Institute, so that the sightless would not miss out on the event.

David Moore, who had returned from overseas in 1958, and Laurence Le Guay, were the only Australians to have works in the exhibition. Moore was represented by his Redfern interior of 1949, which fitted in with the themes of birth, and Le Guay with a picture of New Guinea natives touching noses, presumed by the viewers to be a kissing gesture.

Whether the exhibition topped the attendance records of successful local salons, such as the Victorian Salon of 1939, (which was seen by 10,000 people in 14 days)(12) is not clear, but photographers themselves were astonished by the power of the medium. John Cato (b.1926) (son of Jack Cato; whose history of Australian photography had been published a few years before, on the crest of the Documentary movement interest in past reportage,) recalls endless visits to see the exhibition on view in a car dealer's showroom in Melbourne(13).

Younger photographers also found inspiration in The Family of Man. In Adelaide, Robert McFarlane (b.1944) was guided to a subsequent career as a photojournalist by the exhibition, and produced his own interpretations of the imagery in the following years(14). For McFarlane the optimism of The Family of Man was mixed with the ambiguity and elusive pain found in Robert Frank's book The Americans, which reached Adelaide the same year(15). For others, The Family of Man was the calling to a new profession with accountant, Graham McCarter (b.1940) taking up photography as a result of his visit(16).

Throughout the 1960s a younger generation aspired to documentary work of a personal nature inspired by various combinations of American and European models.

Australian photographers had been banding together since the turn of the century to combat bouts of stagnation perceived in the local scene. The Contemporary Camera Groupe of 1938 and the Six Photographers group of 1955 were both short-lived associations, but with passionate manifestos proclaiming hopes for a more vigorous future.

In the I960s, a Melbourne group organised a series of ‘alternative' Photovision salons, in opposition to a moribund romantic Pictorialism and uninspired Professionalism, Group M, as they called themselves, was formed in 1959 by a number of men who were mostly serious amateur photographers. Members who tended to have technical backgrounds, included central figures John Crook (b.1927), George W Bell (b.1920) and Albert Brown (b.1931)(17). They were, however, against over-refined technique which interfered with the direct communication of aspects of reality.

The Photovision salons were originally an international competition, but came to focus on Australian work(18). In contrast to Pictorial salons, Group M permitted series of works, slides, comments by the photographer and freedom to choose print size. The more sober, social realist side of the Group was expressed in Urban Woman, a thematic show held in 1962 on the life of women in the city. The catalogue statement declared it the 'most ambitious exhibition ever to be attempted by a group of Australian photographers', its selection of over 200 works included mural size images(19).

In recalling the gestation of the exhibition, John Crook does not think that The Family of Man was a direct inspiration. He cited instead a display of photographs of Hiroshima, the film On the Beach, and local painters of urban alienation, John Brack (b.1920) and Arthur Boyd (b.1920). Group M saw themselves as a radical protest against the establishment figures and organisations that clouded the public perception of the power of the medium.

Crook protested at the newspaper articles of Jack Cato which encouraged amateurs to think about lighting and technique rather than subject matter(20). Other correspondents to the newspaper on the same issue seemed to recognise a stagnation in all aspects of Australian work compared to overseas practice. In 1966 Crook expressed a certain despair at the entire past history of Australian work in one of the last Photovision shows:

It is certainly no past to be ashamed of but for most of us it is not much to build on. We look at the past for a Cameron, a Nadar or a Steichen, a Weston, an Evans or a Lange, but they are not there. Most of our photographers have been conquered by the sound disciplines of Pictorialism or Professionalism. In this country at least neither has found fertile soil (21).

The 1960s remain in the history of photography in this country as an apparently transitional era, between the glamour of 50s fashion, advertising and photojournalism and the personalised documentary and experimental work of a generation to come in the 70s. The vein of dissatisfaction with local work, evidenced by the views of Group M perhaps accounts for the fuss made of Robert B. Goodman's book The Australians, published in 1966(22). Goodman, an American, had worked for National Geographic Magazine and made the pictures during visits to Australia in 1962 and 1963. The text was commissioned from Australian author George Johnson.

The Australians received considerable sponsorship from Australian companies and was described as 'a stunning, unforgettably personal vision of a young country'. Today it seems as lacking in any memorable individual images as earlier Australiana books by Frank Hurley. Publication of a book on Australians by an American photographer in the same year as an Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, declared Australia would 'go all the way with L.B.J.' (American President Lyndon Baines Johnson) becomes part of the peak of American influence in these years.

One of Group M's last activities was an exhibition of historical photographs from the Gernsheim collection, Texas, held in 1966.

Few of the exhibitors with Group M went on with careers as exhibition photographers in the 1970s. In retrospect Crook feels that theirs was a commando act softening the ground for a generation of more serious and better-trained photographers. The Group's lack of a sense of continuity with past Australian work, their sophisticated sense of past and contemporary international work, fed by overseas exhibitions and publications, was to be shared with the oncoming generation in the 1970s.

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

P.129: David Moore: European migrants arriving in Sydney, 1960

p.130: Hal Missingham: Cover of Six Photographers exhibition catalogue, 1955

P.131: David Beal: Joyce Beal, records her impressions of Family of Man,1959

P.132: Wolfgang Sievers: Mobil and AMP Buildings, Melbourne, 1960

P.133: Max Dupain: At the Procession, c.1952

 

 

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