Wolfgang Sievers’ camera 1

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Wolfgang Sievers photograph of his Stegemann 9×12 camera

In the year before he died, Wolfgang Sievers donated a camera to my college, NMIT. The camera is a Stegemann Studien-Kamera-C, a 9×12 monorail originally designed by the great Pictorialist photographer Heinrich Kuhn.

The model C started manufacture in 1927 and this one was purchased by Wolfgang in 1937, as you can see from the receipt. The average weekly wage in Germany was 32 marks so this camera cost nine weeks wages. By comparison you can buy a Leica for that today. It came with a case, stand, lenses and film holders – see the photos below.

Stegemann was an important camera manufacturer in Germany and apparently survived the war for a few years. Wolfgang told me he had it manufactured in Berlin, then brought it to Australia in 1938. Unfortunately the 9×12 format was not common here so the camera wasn’t useful. I am not sure if that is the whole story.

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A. Stegemann, Workshop for Precision Photo Apparatus, Berlin 1938

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The camera is a relic of old German craftsmanship, it’s a beautiful handmade object. The best parts are very impressive, exquisite mahogany and brass materials, intricate design, tight tolerances in many places.

On the other hand it is a pre- World War 2 design, it has poor useability. The ground glass is dim and difficult to compose with or to focus. The focusing itself is very clumsy. The camera is awkward to assemble and does not function smoothly like postwar monorails.

Despite that it’s a compelling experience to use. It takes you into an older realm of photography. Heinrich Kuhn’s basic design is 100 years old – you’re using something from the age of Pictorialism! And this was Wolfgang Sievers’ own camera, and he used it in Berlin during the Nazi period!

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See the photographs I made using Wolfgang’s camera by clicking here

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The fine grain of history

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Look at this beautiful texture, the random dispersal of silver grain in a photograph. It’s a closeup of a billboard in Richmond advertising a new apartment construction, Landmark Richmond Apartments. Richmond is an old area, formerly very working class, presently very gentrified. The new apartments will go up across from the Skipping Girl sign, the famous Melbourne landmark (we have so few left, we have to resort to vinegar advertisements!).

Why would the marketers use such an overtly traditional medium as silver photography when the new apartment building will be the acme of modern. Silver-based photograph has been thoroughly supplanted by digital, which represents the future in technology. Silver is holding on as a large niche part of photography but now has associations of tradition and history.

So the marketers must be trying to lend their development an aura of history and authenticity, linking it with the history embodied in the Skipping Girl sign and the old suburb itself. You’re buying a piece of old Melbourne when you take one of these contemporary apartments.

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There’s a powerful irony in all this, because that site has other associations that also go back to the ‘silver age’ of photography. The new Landmark Apartments are going up directly opposite another landmark, the very site of Wolfgang Sievers’ masterpiece, Gears for Mining Industry, Vickers-Ruwolt, 1967.

Yes, Vickers-Ruwolt, the great Australian engineering firm that manufactured giant industrial machines for us in peace and war was situated right there. And do you know what took it’s place and will sit opposite the new Landmark apartments? Ikea, the Swedish importing firm.

Vickers- RuwoltWolfgang Sievers, Gears for Mining Industry, Vickers-Ruwolt, 1967 (photo AGNSW)

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Wolfgang Sievers lives!

Wolfgang Sievers, Adams bronze foundry, 1968

If you love Wolfgang Sievers as much as I do – both the man and his work – then this will interest you. The National Library of Australia has the complete archive of his work online and you can scroll through it at will from your computer. This is a vast collection of images covering decades of his work, industrial, architectural, products, portraits, a privelaged insight into his long working life. It is also instructive in showing the versality that a commercial photographer needs to have.

I once began an article about him with the line “In Wolfgang Sievers’ photographs, Australia is busy”, and you can see from this collection an energetic and productive nation. Sievers was a great propagandist for development, but it was often cast in terms of the skill and labour of an individual worker, as in the image above.

The archive can been be found on the Library’s Picture Australia site here.

Luminous Cities at the NGV

Wolfgang Sievers, Old Frankfurt before its destruction in World War II, 1937

Luminous Cities looks at the photography of cities since the early days of the medium. Each picture acts as a signpost along a timeline, punctuating a period’s significant approach to the representation of cities. There are some very fine, unfamiliar pictures, for example Mark Strizic’s perfectly composed architectural composition of 1960s Collins Street in Melbourne.

Wolfgang Sievers’ high angle photograph of old Frankfurt is troubling. Only seven years later it was completely destroyed, including its world famous medieval centre. The destruction of Germany’s cities in WWII, like that of London, was futile and evil, but it’s the winners who write the propaganda.

Luminous Cities is at the NGV until 13 March.