The brilliant and influential photographer Wolfgang Sievers, who escaped Nazism, left a legacy of his work with leading human rights advocate Julian Burnside, QC. From 25 March to 5 April 2014, 51 of his signed photographs go on sale at Forty-Five Downstairs in Flinders Lane, Melbourne, at prices ranging from $1000 to $15,000.


© Wolfgang Sievers, Fisherman at Nazarø©, Portugal, 1935. Black and white print 36cm x 29cm. Courtesy Liberty Victoria.

Sievers was born in Berlin where his father was an art and architectural historian with the German Foreign Office until his dismissal by the Nazi government in 1933. His mother was a writer and educator of Jewish background and Director of the Institute for Educational Films.


© Wolfgang Sievers, Poverty in Berlin, 1933. Mounted black and white print 30cm x 24cm. Courtesy Liberty Victoria.

From 1936 to 1938, Wolfgang studied at the Contempora””Lehrateliers fø¼r neue Werkkunst in Berlin, a progressive private art school which – like the famous Bauhaus – strongly emphasised the unity of all applied arts. He took architectural photographs for his father’s books on Berlin’s historical buildings, particularly the work of Karl Schinkel. He also spent a year working in Portugal from 1935.   In 1938, he taught at the Contempora but decided to emigrate to Australia following rumours of the school’s imminent closure. He arranged for his photographic equipment to be transported, but was briefly questioned by the Gestapo, then conscripted as an aerial photographer for the Luftwaffe. He fled the country immediately, going first to England.

Much later he recalled, “In the evening I took the train to Cologne. The next day I was in Holland, the day after that I was in England, in Kent, where my brother lived already, and he took me to the pub and I got drunk on cloudy Kentish cider for the first time in my life. It was wonderful.”

In Australia, Sievers opened a studio in South Yarra, Melbourne. After war was declared, he volunteered for the Australian Army and served from 1942 to 1946. Following demobilisation, he established a studio at Grosvenor Chambers in fashionable Collins Street, initially drawing many of his commissions from fellow European immigrants including the architect Frederick Romberg and Ernst Fuchs who had arrived from Vienna. During his early years in Melbourne, Sievers became a lifelong friend of fellow ø©migrø© photographer Helmut Newton and his Australian actress wife June Browne, who later made photographs herself under the pseudonym “Alice Springs”.


© Wolfgang Sievers, Paper Mill in Burnie, Tasmania, 1956 (detail). Mounted black and white print 60cm x 42cm. Courtesy Liberty Victoria.

Some of Wolfgang’s major corporate clients included Alcoa, Australian Paper Manufacturers, Comalco, Hamersley Iron, John Holland Group, John Lysaght, Shell and Vickers Ruwolt. He also received commissions from architectural firms including Bates, Smart and McCutcheon, Hassall & McConnell, Leith & Bartlett, Winston Hall and Yuncken Freeman. In the 1950s, Sievers was engaged by the then Department of Overseas Trade with a brief to change Australia’s image from a land of sheep and wool to an image of a sophisticated industrial and manufacturing nation. Many of these images were published in the magazine Walkabout.

Sievers’s work after World War Two was imbued with the Bauhaus ethos and philosophy of the New Objectivity he had learned in Berlin, combined with a socialist belief in the inherent dignity of labour. His photographs were often overtly theatrical, as he commonly photographed industrial machinery at night, isolating details with artificial light and posing workers for heightened effect. This can be seen in ‘Gears for Mining Industry’ (1967), perhaps his most well known single image. This approach was extraordinarily influential in Australian post-war commercial photography.


© Wolfgang Sievers, Cement Mill Construction at Vickers Ruwolt, 1970. Mounted black and white print 37cm x 28cm. Courtesy Liberty Victoria.


© Wolfgang Sievers, Capitol Theatre 1975 (detail). C-print 50cm x 40cm. Courtesy Liberty Victoria.

In 1989, the Australian National Gallery staged a retrospective of his work, an exhibition which travelled around the country, often accompanied by Sievers’ lectures. In 2000, he was the subject of a major retrospective exhibition held in Lisbon, Portugal at the “Arquivo Fotografico Municipal de Lisboa”. For his services to photography, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 2002.

The National Library of Australia has an archive of more than 50,000 of Sievers’ negatives and transparencies.

Sievers was active in Australia, Germany and Austria with research into the emigration of war criminals to Australia from 1990 to 1998. In 2007, he donated several hundred photographs from his archive, worth up to $1 million, to raise money for justice and civil liberties causes.

Kevin Childs
Liberty Victoria