Cazneaux and BHP


Harold Cazneaux, Untitled (Structure B.H.P.) 1934

This handsome picture was made by the great Australian photographer Harold Cazneaux. It’s a finely balanced play of abstract shapes and it came out of a plum job.

In the early 1930s, Cazneaux was given the best commission one could imagine: shoot all of BHP’s industrial and mining installations throughout Australia in your own way. He was given a year or more to do it and the results were to be published in prestige jubilee publication in 1934. The resulting book, which I once bought for just one dollar, was full of his images in beautiful duotone printing on textured paper.

By the 1930s, Cazneaux was our most eminent photographer. He had won international attention for his Pictorialist photographs, was the first to hold a solo exhibition of photographs, had established an art photography movement, and was well known as a society portraitist and landscape artist. The BHP assignment rounded out his CV with industrial photographs of great beauty.

One of the marks of this work is the way it applies Pictorialist aesthetics to a subject normally associated with the hard modern look of the Bauhaus style. Where Cazneaux emphasized smoke and haze as a way of screening the harsh realities of industry, the German photographers emphasized the brutal steel and concrete as forming a new machine art. To illustrate this, just compare these relatively soft images with the later industrial work of Wolfgang Sievers who was trained in a Bauhaus-style photography school in Berlin.

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Blast Furnace, Newcastle, 1934


Rolling Steel Plates, Newcastle, 1934


Steam and Sunshine, 1934


The Sievers project


Cameron Clarke, Gauge Area (Ford Territory Right Hand Rear Quarter Panel) Geelong Stamping Plant, Ford Motor Company 2014

Wolfgang Sievers was the great Australian photographer of work and industry. His career prospered during the middle and late decades of the 20th century when Australia actually made things, made everything. That productive economy is gone so it’s interesting to see how young photographers respond to his work. That is the curatorial brief for the new exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, called The Sievers project.

Six early career artists, working in photography through to installation, have responded in diverse ways to renowned Australian photographer Wolfgang Sievers.

It’s a worthy idea – what does a twenty-something photographer make of of the great period of Australian manufacturing and industrial growth, when most traces of it are gone?

To my eye the best work in the show, and the closest to Sievers’ own ideas, is that of Cameron Clarke who labels himself a documentary photographer. Large frontal images of machines and portraits of workers are presented in a long row of rich black & white prints.

But Clarke’s series is an elegy, not a celebration. The subject of Clarke’s photographs, the Ford factory in Geelong will soon stop manufacturing. On the very day of writing this post it was in the headlines announcing redundancies of 130 workers.