Photographs evoke
an era rich in hope

The Age 11.10.1991

Wolfgang Sievers is a legend­ary figure in Australian photog­raphy. Trained in Germany before the war, he brought a modernist perspec­tive to an Australia that was still in the grip of Edwardian notions about pho­tography. His striking imagery, which emphasised clarity and bold graphic form, were a real contrast to the mushy nostalgia that then dominated the medium.

Australia must have seemed a back­water and it would have been diffi­cult for him, having come from Ger­many, which, until Hitler, was the centre of new culture in the Western world, and the place where the “New Photography” was born. Slevers has said that Max Dupain was the only other photographer in Australia who shared his views.

Slevers’ father was a noted art histo­rian who encouraged the young man’s interest in photography. Both had an aversion to Hitler: Sievers tells of being expelled from the German embassy in Portugal where he was living after describing Hitler to the new ambassa­dor as “that bastard”!

He escaped from Germany in 1938 and migrated here to become one of our three most important photogra­phers, along with Dupain and Athol Shmith.

The exhibition is a full retrospective with over 80 images made throughout his life. It is unusual in that Sievers has written extensive notes, anecdotes and reflections, about each photograph, which hang alongside the pictures, giv­ing a charming personal tone to the exhibition, and also providing an insight into his own motivations.

His whole career is covered and the span of history is breathtaking. He was making fine landscape and architectur­al images in his early 20s before study­ing at the famous Contempora School for Applied Arts where he adopted the New Objectivity style, applying it to^ portrait and advertising assignments. Compare the elegance of the architec­tural studies of 1936 to the bluntness of Portrait of Astra von Borch, 1937′ and one can see what a thorough stylist and professional he was even in his early 20s. Sievers is best known for the mag­nificent architectural and industrial images made in post-war Australia for clients such as BHP and Shell. These have an unforgettable grandeur and are really the stars of the show. His modernity is evident throughout, although obviously sharpened by study­ing under Bauhaus-trained teachers. The Bauhaus ideology of marrying fine art with industry is evident throughout his mature work (the slogan of its director Walter Groptus was “Art and technology — a new unity”),

Coming from an industrialised na­tion like Germany, he not surprisingly has a highly developed appreciation for the Importance of technology. Industry and science are his central concerns and it seems to me that his great project was to describe the civi­lising effects of technology.

Throughout the exhibition Sievers’ photographs return to the theme of man and work, mankind building and Grafting the environment, using techno­logy. Men are seen grappling with the forces of nature, as in the exquisite col­or image in a Broken Hill mine where the workmen are posed in almost heroic stances. This mythic quality per­vades the Australian work. In the pho­tograph of the pounding sea under a Bass Strait oil rig, in the cathedral-like image of a sulphuric acid plant, and most famously in his masterpiece, the extraordinary ‘Gears for Mining Indus­try, Vickers-Ruwolt’, which shows a white-coated engineer measuring the cogs on a vast hanging steel gear, the forces at work are elemental, pro­found. In this, as in many of his pic­tures, the scene has been entirely set up, a staged drama symbolising Man, Machine and Nature.

Sievers’ great theme has always been the individual’s creative involve­ment in industry, the dignity of skilled labor and the central role of technical knowledge in forging a civilised envi­ronment.

This was the ideology of the post-war Industrial world, and the images now have a slightly nostalgic ring. In a “green” decade such as this, images ol industrial power can have an ambigu­ous edge; we now tend to see the destruction of nature rather than cre­ations of men. Faced with the work ol Wolfgang Sievers, one can see what a sense of a heroic future we have lost.