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A look at The Australian Situation – Past and Present

Online version of the original 1979 article published in Australian Photography – a contemporary view, edited by Laurence Le Guay

Gael Newton, 1979

At the time Gael Newton was the Curator of Photography at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.


In Australian Photography 1976 Jenny Boddington, Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Victoria, commented on the tremendously increased activity and interest in photography over the past five years. The prospects for the next five years were a matter for intriguing speculation.

If the flood of photographic publishing coming out of America is anything to go by, then one of the areas of gain will be publication of quality books on Australian photography. That this trend has already started is indicated by recent publications including Australian Photography 1976-77.

There has been a spate of nostalgic picture books dealing with 'old Sydney', ‘old Melbourne', 'old goldfields' – anything as long as it is picturesque. With a few notable exceptions, most of these publications would make the connoisseur of sensitive reproduction wince. Photographs are bled to the edges and often uncredited as to photographer or source. Few attempts at facsimile reprinting of old negatives are undertaken. It even seems that suppliers of new prints are doing kodaliths on grade five papers and the resultant loss of the tonal range of 19th century photography is great.

A soft cover book photographs of the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge by pictorialist Henri Mallard (1884-1967) was released in 1976. It followed a successful exhibition at the Australian Centre for Photography. The book sold out quickly but a reprint has been mooted. The dilemma of reprinted negatives arose in Mallard's case. The new prints are crisp and dramatic, whereas original prints by Mallard were made within the pictorial era's taste for soft-focus images on warm-toned papers.

On the basis of the book alone, it was possible for one reviewer to compare Lewis Hine's coverage of the building of the Empire State building in New York with the realist documentary spirit ‘evident’ in Mallard's pictures. Mallard's body of work shows leanings towards documentary as we understand the term. But he never broke with the pictorial canons that subject matter was only the starting point for the beautiful self-contained image.

I do not intend any criticism of the book or exhibition prints. The difficulties of facsimile reprinting are immense. Previous eras had far greater ranges of papers, toners and a taste for variety in print appearance. The current threat of ever decreasing choice in papers is at odds with a growing curiosity about old processes.

The finest publication and facsimile printing is being done by Richard Benson of the Fisher Press, Long Island. His work represents a new type of professional printer in America. Australians are somewhat disadvantaged in not being able to easily attend workshops on publication and processes.

The importance of publication of photographs should not be underestimated. Without an increase in quality printing and publication in Australia it will not be possible to do full justice to either our contemporary or historical photographs. Yet of all art forms, photography can be most faithfully reproduced and thus spread throughout the community. With Australians so far from major centres of photography, publications are the chief contact with the photographic world. Vice versa, publications are the only opportunity for exhibiting Australian work outside the country.

The National Library of Australia in Canberra, has taken a remarkably enlightened attitude to publicising its rich collections. In 1976 a quality hard cover book of photographs of Gundagai, a country town, taken by Dr. Gabriel was published. The new prints produced for 'Gundagai Days’ were not very 19th century in appearance. The book itself was a significant combination of aesthetic and historical interests in photo publication.

Annual appointment diaries have also been produced by the National Library, over the last few years, displaying good photographs chosen for aesthetic interest as much as historical content and reproduced as well as possible.

Encouraged by the success of Gundagai Days, the National Library has produced a major monograph on Harold Cazneaux with eighty plates, reputedly of remarkable fidelity to the originals. Harold Cazneaux (1878-1953) was Australia's leading pictorial photographer. Cazneaux, whose work was much published in his lifetime as illustrations and as straight art, held the first one-man show in Australian photographic history in 1909.

It seems amazing that there has been so little support over the years for monographs, which are really only one-man shows in publication. As the National Library's Cazneaux book will not be released until late 1978, it remains to be seen whether straight photographic books have a market in Australia even now. The pictures in the book have been drawn principally from the Cazneaux collection (over 200 prints) at the National Library, with others from the Cazneaux family and the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection.

The collection of monographs on Australian photographers to date would barely occupy a foot of shelf space. The first appears to be by Cecil Bostock (1884-1939); A portfolio of Art Photographs, produced in 1917. The portfolio, hand bound and limited to twenty-five copies, contained ten original prints. In 1919 a monograph with twenty half tone illustrations, limited to one thousand copies, on John Kauffmann (c.1866-1942) a pioneer pictorialist, was published with gravure reproductions of plates accompanied by a critical essay.

No other monographs seem to have been undertaken until 1948 when Sydney Ure Smith, an inspired and prolific publisher, undertook a limited edition of a thousand copies of fifty-one gravure reproductions of Max Dupain's work. The book was simply titled Max Dupain Photographs.

Dupain had emerged over the previous decade as the outstanding figure in modern photography which was slowly eroding the dominance of pictorialism. The Dupain book probably did not sell as well as the last monograph to be mentioned; Fifty Masterpieces of Photography by Dr. Julian Smith comprising gravure reproductions which came in an elaborate box, accompanied by a printed foreword.

Dr. Julian Smith (1873-1947) was a prominent Melbourne surgeon and enthusiastic amateur pictorial photographer. He was addicted to studio portrait studies of models dressed up as literary characters, such as Dick Swiveller from Charles Dicken’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), or anonymous types titled ‘The Thinker’ or ‘Old Firebrand’.

Book and magazine illustration and specialist photography magazines have provided the only regular publication outlets for Australian photographers since the development of picture reproduction in the 1880s. The value of such publications to researchers is inestimable. Publication is photographic history.

So few institutions have collected photography in the past that much original material has been destroyed and can only be experienced in reproductions. Australian photographic history is dependent on early magazines such as The Australasian Photo-Review (1894-1957), The Australian Photographic Journal (Harringtons 1892-1927) later HPJ which were largely designed to sell photographic supplies via the lure of publishing amateur and professional work.

The Australasian Photo-Review was edited for many years by the Keast Burke, one of a rare, breed of photographic historians in Australia. In 1973 Burke published Gold and Silver: Photographs from the Holtermann Collection a scholarly account with fair illustrations, of the B.O. Holtermann collection of photographs of life on the Australian goldfields. The only previous major work on Australian photographic history was Jack Cato’s Story of the Camera in Australia (1955, but recently reprinted).

An independent journal called Contemporary Photography supported by subscriptions and advertising was published between 1946-57. Edited by Laurence Le Guay (editor of Australian Photography 1976, and the current publication) Australian Photography magazine (1956-7) produced Australian Photography 1976 to mark the magazine's 25th anniversary.

The immediate post World War II years saw the appearance of various annuals particularly since the importance of salons had declined. Rarely have the annuals become annual in production. Australian Photography 1947, edited by Oswald Ziegler was hopefully described as a 'first issue'. Australian Photography, 1957, was the next issue. Both books functioned as salons, as medals were given for the best works submitted for inclusion. Laurie Le Guay edited Australian Photography a portfolio of in 1950.

Most of the annuals were substantial hard cover publications but seemed to decline in popularity in the sixties. The Australian Photographic Society published Camera in Australia in 1970, an ambitious coverage of over two hundred plates. The Australian Centre for Photography published Aspects of Australian Photography and New Photography Australia in 1974 but for financial reasons has been unable to publish annual reviews of contemporary work.

The value of such annuals should not be discounted. Some vehicle for cross section of work in a given period is most important, and should not be dropped in favour of specialized histories and monographs or small group selections.

Perhaps the most ambitious publishing project to date in the magazine field is Light Vision. It: has just completed a year's existence with the publishing of Issue No. 6 and 7. The magazine is dedicated to the standards set by overseas publications such as Aperture and Creative Camera, particularly in reproduction quality.

The lack of a number of experienced writers, researchers and critics to match that standard has been only too apparent in the magazine's pages. Complimentary to Light Vision is a new modest publication called Working Papers on Photography. It aims to fill this gap by stimulating the thoughtful consideration of photography and provide practical communication between researchers and writers.

If a set of prints from every photographic publication had to be donated to a central collection – along with notes and papers of the author, the present frustrating task of trying to relocate photographers and their work would be dismissed.

The above is a sample view of some facets of publication in Australia. A fuller appendix of periodicals can be found in the catalogue to The Mechanical Eye exhibition, published by the McLeay Museum, Sydney University based on research by Con Tanre.

The Australian Centre for Photography will embark on a revised library policy of collection of Australian Photographic books. This will eventually provide an easy overview to the state of the art in Australia.


In general, prospects for the future seem to promise an exciting period of publication.

Gael Newton


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