Harold Pierce Cazneaux (1878-1953) is regarded as Australia's leading pictorial or art photographer. Described by Max Dupain as the father of modern Australian photography, his influence has been profound.
Cazneaux's work is celebrated for its embrace of natural light, which he saw as a key element in developing photographs with a distinctly Australian character. His extensive and versatile photographic work - from city views and landscapes to portraiture - is a testament to his innovation, passion and drive to take photography as an art to the world.
Harold Cazneaux (1878-1953), Spirit of Endurance, 1937, photograph, 510 x 635mm. Image courtesy of State Library of South Australia: PRG 737/3.
He participated regularly in national and international exhibitions, receiving critical and popular acclaim. His 1937 photograph, Spirit of Endurance, is arguably his most famous work.
Cazneaux was also a prolific writer, including a 20-year stint as correspondent for Photograms of the Year (UK), as well as a critic and teacher of photographic theory and technique.
Cazneaux's early life
Although Cazneaux was introduced to photography at an early age (both his parents worked in commercial photographic studios), he was initially more interested in sketching and drawing. While attending art school at night, he worked with his father at Hammer & Co. portrait studio in Adelaide.
However, when the 20-year-old Cazneaux visited John Kauffman's 1898 Adelaide exhibition, he had an epiphany. The soft-focus impressionistic images revealed the camera as an instrument of art, spurring Cazneaux on to create his own style.
Harold Cazneaux (1878-1953), The razzle dazzle, 1910, bromoil, 16.3 x 22.7cm. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an2383966-1.
In 1904, Cazneaux relocated to Sydney and Freeman & Co. photographic studio. With his first camera he took hundreds of photos in his spare time. Sydney's city streets, its people and the Harbour were his subjects. Work from this period includes the moody Horse Ferry, Milson's Point (1908), the timeless Old Sydney, Rocks Area (1912), and the movement of his critically acclaimed The razzle dazzle (1910).
Cazneaux joined The Photographic Society of New South Wales in 1907, holding his first exhibition the same year. In 1909, he held Australia's first one-man show, to wide acclaim. The exhibition established him as a major talent locally and abroad with many of the photos being exhibited in overseas salons in the following years.
In 1911, Photograms of the Year, the leading British pictorial journal, ranked Cazneaux equal to his contemporaries, including Alfred Stieglitz and Frank Eugene. He was recognised as a pioneer of the pictorial movement.
By 1914, Cazneaux had fathered four of his six children. The same year, he won a national Kodak 'Happy Moments' competition with a series of ten prints. With the prize money, he bought a house in Roseville.
Harold Cazneaux (1878-1953), The quest: portrait of Rainbow Cazneaux, 1910, photograph, 33.1 x 26.2cm. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an2383799-2.
Cazneaux's children were constant subjects. An example of this is The quest, featuring his first daughter, Rainbow searching for fairies in the home garden.
In 1916, Cazneaux and a small group of photographers, including Cecil Bostock, James Stening, WS White, Malcolm McKinnon and James Paton signed the Sydney Camera Circle declaration. They pledged to embrace the unique Australian light and landscape, marking a move away from the darker European imagery that dominated at that time.
After 20 years of balancing the conflicting demands of his personal work with the commercial studio system, Cazneaux suffered a physical and nervous collapse in 1917. He resigned from Freeman & Co. the following year, and opened his own studio.
Cazneaux: artist in photography
From 1920, Cazneaux's home became his studio. His personally designed Edna Walling-style garden was the backdrop for much of his work. Sunlight and natural poses featured heavily. Finally, passion and profession merged.
Harold Cazneaux (1878-1953), The bamboo blind: portrait of Beryl Cazneaux, 1915, photograph, 26.3 x 21cm. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an2383810-2.
Sydney Ure Smith employed Cazneaux as the official photographer to his lifestyle magazine, The Home, in 1920. Their relationship continued for more than 20 years. The frontispiece of the first issue featured Cazneaux's filtered light portrait, The bamboo blind (1915).
Photographs for The Home included Sydney's social elite, including artists such as Norman Lindsay, as well as actors and models. Cazneaux lifted portraiture to new heights, unveiling a previously unseen intimacy with his attention to detail and natural lighting. The gardens and way of life of Sydney's well-to-do and Sydney itself were also subjects.
Harold Cazneaux (1878-1953), A study in profile: portrait of Margaret Vyner, 1931, photograph, 30 x 28.9cm. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an2383895.
One of Cazneaux's most successful series' was his 'new idea' portraits, which placed subjects against painted backdrops. A study in profile (1931) is a case in point.
Beyond The Home
Beyond The Home, Cazneaux and Ure Smith collaborated on other publications, including the magazine, Art in Australia , and special publications such as Sydney Surfing (1929), The Bridge Book (1930), The Sydney Book (1931) and The Australian Native Bear Book (1930). Cazneaux enjoyed the challenge, variety and larger audience afforded by the assignments, and his kinship with Ure Smith.
In 1934, Cazneaux took photographs for The Frensham Book, depicting life at Frensham, a girls' boarding school in Mittagong, New South Wales. Exhilarated by the lack of photographic restriction, it was the closest he ever came to a personal book.
Harold Cazneaux (1878-1953), Pouring steel, NSW, 1934, photograph, 35 x 27.8cm. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an2381200.
Around the same time, Cazneaux was commissioned by BHP to photograph their steelworks at Newcastle, New South Wales and Whyalla, South Australia. The resulting images juxtapose the small human figure against dominating machinery. Their bold composition, with delicate tones, marks a move away from pictorialism toward a modernist style. Examples from this series include Pouring steel, NSW (1934) and Whyalla, South Australia (1935).
Work for The Home slowed markedly from 1934, with its publication ceasing in 1942.
The Australian landscape
From the mid to late 1930s, Cazneaux devoted his attention to the Australian landscape. He was struck by its constantly changing light, beauty and grandeur. It was an appreciation he shared with his friend and painter, Hans Heysen.
Harold Cazneaux (1878-1953), River Gums, 1935, photograph, 23.3 x 29.7cm. Image courtesy of National Library of Australia: nla.pic-an2384477.
Ever sensitive to sunlight, texture, shadow and shape, Cazneaux's images pay homage to the subject. From the serenity of landscapes such as Autumn light, South Australia (1935), to the endurance of Australian gum trees such as River Gums (1935).
In 1937, Cazneaux was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain - the ultimate photographic accolade.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Cazneaux returned to portrait work from his home studio. His primary subjects were soldiers and their families.
In 1941, his only son, Harold, died at Tobruk, aged 21.
Cazneaux's later years
Much of Cazneaux's last decade was spent rediscovering the large collection of his own work. By his own admission, he was being taken over by new trends in photography.
In the early 1950s, he corresponded regularly with photographer and author Jack Cato, who was researching his book, The Story of the Camera in Australia (1955). Cato hosted a tribute evening for Cazneaux in 1952 - a testament Cazneaux's talent as a photographer.
Cazneaux died the following year, aged 75. He was survived by his wife of 48 years, Winifred Hodge, and their five daughters, who all helped in his studio.
Select solo exhibitions
- Harold Cazneaux: Artist in photography. Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2008
- Harold Cazneaux Photographs - An Exhibition. National Library of Australia/ Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales
Select group exhibitions
- Family portraits: Harold Cazneaux and Cecil Bostock. Bendigo Art Gallery, 2006
- In a new light: Australian photography. National Library of Australia
- Soft shadows and sharp lines: Australian photography from Cazneaux to Dupain. Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2002
- Australian Observer: the photographs of Harold Cazneaux 1878-1953. National Library of Australia/ Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales
- Australian Dictionary of Biography (online edition)
- Dictionary of Australian Artists online
Select Cazneaux collections
- National Library of Australia, Canberra
- National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
- Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
- Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales, Sydney
References used in preparing this story
- H Ennis, introduction to Harold Cazneaux: the quiet observer, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 1994.
- V Hill, The Cazneaux Women, Craftsman House, New South Wales, 2000.
Last updated: 3rd July 2008
Creators: Rachel Roberts Communications