Writing to the Australian photographic historian and writer Jack Cato in 1952, just a year before he died, Harold Cazneaux, recalled how the 1898 international exhibition of pictorialist photography forever changed him. ‘I stood spellbound and inspired,’ he told Cato, ‘here was a new beauty beyond anything I had dreamed of in terms of the camera.’

 

Writing to the Australian photographic historian and writer Jack Cato in 1952, just a year before he died, Harold Cazneaux, recalled how the 1898 international exhibition of pictorialist photography forever changed him. ‘I stood spellbound and inspired,’ he told Cato, ‘here was a new beauty beyond anything I had dreamed of in terms of the camera.’

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The Razzle Dazzle 1910
By the time Cazeneaux walked into the Adelaide exhibition, pictorialism as a photographic movement was well into its second decade. Similar shows had been touring Europe and the US since the late 1880s. Important and influential salons based on the new photographic approach had also emerged. In fact, a group of headstrong pictorialists styling themselves ‘The Linked Ring Brotherhood’, seceded from the august Royal Photographic Society in 1892.
Although in some ways a reaction against establishment high-art photography of the mid-19th century, pictoralism was nevertheless highly formalised. Its goal was to elevate photography to the same status as painting. To achieve that aim, its practitioners explicitly valued composition and aesthetic effects above all. Soft focus, atmospheric effects (fog, mist and evening light were much favoured) and a general preference for the darker end of the photographic palette are all common characteristics of pictorialist photographs.
The pictorialists regarded the photographic negative as but the first step on an arduous journey to a finished artwork. Unlike many a modern photographer, they thought nothing of cropping their pictures aggressively in order to achieve compositions that conformed to pictorialist ideals. And that was just the start of it. Complex and difficult printing processes were then employed to achieve results that often had a very painterly look. For Cazneaux and his fellow pictoralists, a great image always combined striking composition with virtuoso printing technique.
Like so many before him, Harold Cazneaux was smitten by the way pictoralist techniques transformed photographs from mere visual recordings into aesthetically superior works of art. It was an attitude that he would maintain in more or less undiminished form across a career that spanned four decades.
In the winter of 2008, the Art Gallery of New South Wales staged an exhibition drawn from its extensive collection of Harold Cazneaux images. Photo Review attended Harold Cazneaux: Artist in Photography and subsequently took the opportunity to speak with exhibition curator, Natasha Bullock.
‘I think one of the most significant things pictorialism did was to establish photography as an art,’ Bullock explained. And Cazneaux, who was not only an active pictorialist, but a correspondent for international photography publications and a founding member of the seminal Sydney Camera Circle, was a tremendously influential figure in his own right. ‘He gave Australia a voice through the salons and through those international publications. People became more aware of what [Australian photography was doing]. And it created a platform for others,’ she added. ‘I think Olive Cotton was really influenced by Cazneaux’s work, you can see that in the mix of work she shows as she weaves between pictorialism and the modernist aesthetic. Cazneaux gave a voice to Australian photography.’

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Sydney surfing 1929
Just as pictorialism was a powerful reaction against the dominant photographic aesthetic of the late 19th Century, so it in turn engendered an equal, if not stronger, reaction from a generation of photographers we now know as the modernists. Cazneaux started his career as pictorialism was reaching its zenith, but by the time he stopped taking pictures toward the end of the 1930s, the modernists were well and truly ascendent.
These days the prevailing aesthetic sensibility (at least where many critics are concerned) is one of detachment and ironic perspective. In the harsh glare of this post-modernism, the frank idealism of a young Harold Cazneaux can seem quaint and almost naive.
Sniffy post-modernist critics notwithstanding, Natasha Bullock calculated that AGNSW audiences would be happy to move beyond the sometimes rarefied high-art conceptualism that was so popular at the end of the 20th century. Speaking of her approach to the exhibition’s design, she said ‘a lot has been made of Cazneaux’s inability to engage in modernism. But I wanted to accept the work on its own terms. It’s so whimsical and romantic, and beautiful and anti the kind of irony that you see in conceptual work. I think now is a good time [for it] to come back. Here you have someone who is totally engaged. The sentimentality is fine by him. I think as an audience, we’re ready now to engage with that.’
The 180-page companion volume for the exhibition, Harold Cazneaux Artist in Photography, is available from the AGNSW’s online store (https://secure.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/agnsw_store_products?cid=348&pid=47057).
See Photo Review magazine Issue 38 for the print edition of this profile which includes additional images.
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