THE photography of Wolfgang Sievers is acknowledged as a significant contribution to Australian photographic history.
As we approach the centenary of his birth in Germany on September 18 1913, Sievers’ photographs remain a valuable cultural resource. The National Library of Australia and the State Library of Victoria maintain considerable collections of his photographs, negatives and transparencies with several images included in the State Library of Victoria exhibition As Modern as Tomorrow: Photographers in Postwar Melbourne.
Sievers became a student of modern photography at the Contempora School for Applied Arts in Berlin from 1935-38. His training and practical experience in New Photography influenced by the Bauhaus movement, gave Sievers the skills and creative vision unlike the mainstream style of photography found in Australia at the time.
He arrived in Melbourne in late 1938 and eventually established himself as a commercial photographer specialising in architectural and industrial photography. Sievers’ vast catalogue of images records the post war modernisation and development of the manufacturing and mining industries and his photographs of buildings in the city of Melbourne still regularly appear in publications as a record of Melbourne’s history.
Sievers approached photography as an art form and took great care in setting up views and light sources to capture the image just so. He selected views to highlight the pure forms and line of modernist architecture using the tone and contrast achieved by black and white photography and artificial or natural light for dramatic effect. An example of this is his 1960 photograph of the Mobil and Australian Paper Manufacturers buildings at Southbank designed by Bates Smart & McCutcheon, now Bates Smart. The view point contrasts the immovable bulk and angular lines of the buildings with the temporary cloud formation.
The angle selected by Sievers in his 1951 photograph of Stanhill Flats at 34 Queens Road, Melbourne designed by Frederick Romberg, emphasises the vertical and horizontal lines of the building and uses contrast to accentuate the solid form of the curved balustrades. Similarly, the colour photograph of the British Land building at 601 Bourke Street taken in 1975 accentuates the crisp structural lines and perspective against the backdrop of a clear blue sky.
Likewise, Sievers’ application of New Photography is seen in the dynamic 1971 photograph of the underside of the Westgate Bridge which captures the beauty of pure form and engineering of the bridge and the ongoing development of Melbourne. One of his most famous photographs is Gears for Mining Industry, Vickers Ruwolt, Burnley Victoria 1967, a signed print of which was included in the Wolfgang Sievers Gift collection offered to Julian Burnside AO QC for the purpose of raising funds to support human rights causes. This manifestation of Sievers’ social conscience, motivated by his experience of repression in pre-war Germany, was expressed six months after meeting Mr Burnside.
“Wolfgang Sievers asked if I would be interested in a collection of several hundred photographs for use in raising funds for human rights causes. I accepted the photos without even seeing them and he was delighted. The Gift collection of photographs has so far realised over $400,000 which has been distributed to various human rights groups,” Burnside said.
Reflecting on his early introduction to Sievers’ work, notable architectural photographer John Gollings said “I went to school with his son, Anders, who would tell me some of the technical stuff, like cameras and film, that his father used, but it was looking at his display case images in the Australia Hotel on Collins Street that made a profound influence for their clarity and virtuosity. I used to watch him work when he made images at the school but it was through conversation and questioning that I learnt much.
“Later, as I got to know him well through long conversations, I could imbibe the concerns he held for humanity and modernism which informed his work. His perfectionism, strength of character and vision had a major influence on my enthusiasm to keep learning through practice and experiment. My obsession with composition came from studying his images but in conversation I absorbed his humanity and humour and social concerns, all of which now help inform the narrative in my own images.”
Sievers died at the age of 93 in 2007. Helen Ennis’ book, Wolfgang Sievers, published by the National Library of Australia, provides a great insight into his early life in Germany, his life and career in Melbourne and details his approach to photography throughout his career.
ABC NEWS REPORT September 2 2011