New Zealand 1878 – Australia 1953
Untitled (B.H.P. plant, Newcastle) 1934 Materials & Technique: photographs, gelatin silver photograph
As a photographer, Harold Cazneaux was highly versatile, an essential attribute if one were to make a living as a professional in the early 20th century. A consummate portraitist and a fine landscape photographer, he also made artful studies of modern industrial scenes such as construction sites and factories. However, such subjects were rare in his oeuvre, confined to the mid-1930s when the Australian company, Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP), commissioned him to photograph their steel works at Newcastle in New South Wales. This photograph was probably taken at that time.
A commanding image, it is testament to Cazneaux’s exceptional compositional abilities. Never predisposed to spontaneity, he chose a vantage point that enabled him to exercise full control over what he saw. He was especially attentive to the relationship between diverse formal elements, for example, focusing on the different shapes and forms of the buildings, pylons and power lines, rather than their industrial function.
Cazneaux’s photograph is highly reminiscent of a drawing or a print, in its use of line as a formal accent and in the rich array of tones. Such associations are significant: he was very familiar with the traditions of western art and, as a Pictorialist, was committed to emulating them in his photographs.
What is most curious about the image is that, despite its contemporary subject matter and the fact that it was taken during a period of rapid modernisation, it looks remarkably old fashioned. Dominated by the monolithic industrial structures, the photograph is more evocative of the ‘dark satanic mills’1 of the 19th century than modern industry. Were it not for the smudge of smoke at the rear of the composition, one could believe momentarily that this is an abandoned site, a ruin rather than an exemplar of modern industry.
1William Blake, ‘And Did Those Feet’ in Milton, a Poem, 1804, (line8).
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