Axel POIGNANT, Swagman on the road to Wilcannia Enlarge 1 /1


England 1906 – 1986

  • Australia 1926-1956

Swagman on the road to Wilcannia [ (formerly Australian swagman)] 1954 Materials & Technique: photographs, gelatin silver photograph

Primary Insc: 1764, 3, 145
Dimensions: printed image 50.4 h x 40.1 w cm framed (overall) 89.1 h x 65.5 w x 4.0 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1984
Accession No: NGA 84.149
Image rights: © Axel Poignant Archive
‘Time as it were, fuses together with space and flows into it, forming the road.’   M.M. Bakhtin1

In the years since I stood on the road to Wilcannia in 1954, next to Axel as he clicked the shutter and imprinted onto film his own vision of the swagman, this back-view of the old battler’s Chaplinesque figure has lodged itself firmly in the national consciousness. What accounts for the persistence of this essentially male vision of Australian identity? Where does the road to Wilcannia lead today? Has the way via the harsh land led only to the soft centre inhabited by Crocodile Dundee?

Does the Swagman on the road to Wilcannia represent an after-image of a fading national fiction, or is it more durable?

My inclination is to reclaim the photograph from the myth and to restore something of its historical specificity. For Axel, the encounter marked a moment both of recognition and of intersection between the past and future. It was the place where his own memories of wandering the back roads of New South Wales in the 1930s in search of work collided with the vision of ‘the sunlit plains extended’2 in the bright patch at the end of the road. Taken shortly after our marriage, it looked forward to a new, shared life. Thus the dynamic power of the image lies in the tension between the lonely figure and the promise of the distant view, accommodating readings of both hope and despair, and a shift of focus between biographical and universal interpretations.

Roslyn Poignant 2002

1M.M. Bakhtin, The Dialogue Imagination, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

2Banjo Patterson, Clancy of the Overflow, line 15.

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002