Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion Cover Image

Berg Encyclopedia of World Dress and Fashion

Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Islands


Margaret Maynard (ed)

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

Fashion Photography in Australia

Daniel Palmer and Kate Rhodes

Encyclopedia entry

DOI: 10.2752/BEWDF/EDch7026
Pages: 163–167


Australian fashion photography has a relatively short history, starting with the earliest examples of fashion advertisements from the beginning of the twentieth century through to the popularization of the genre in Australia via the work of modernist photographers such as Max Dupain and the postwar heyday of Helmut Newton and others. An exploration of the strong voice of independent publishers who have helped to market Australian fashion and style is noted and includes the internationally recognized fashion imagery produced by photographers working today in a globalized industry. With a very small magazine publishing industry in the early years, to a considerable degree Australian fashion photography has followed in the footsteps of British and U.S. image making. The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries brought new energy to Australian fashion publishing, in particular more experimental publications such as the highly successful magazine doingbird.

Origins of Australian Fashion Photography

Australian fashion photography has a relatively short history, starting with the earliest examples of fashion advertisements from the beginning of the twentieth century through to the popularization of the genre in Australia via the work of modernist photographers such as Max Dupain and the postwar heyday of Helmut Newton and others. An exploration of the strong voice of independent publishers who have helped to market Australian fashion and style is noted and includes the internationally recognized fashion imagery produced by photographers working today in a globalized industry. With a very small magazine publishing industry in the early years, to a considerable degree Australian fashion photography has followed in the footsteps of British and U.S. image making. The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries brought new energy to Australian fashion publishing, in particular more experimental publications such as the highly successful magazine doingbird.

Fashion photography in Australia, as elsewhere, grew out of society and glamour portraiture, which in turn descended from carte de visite (a small photograph the size of a visiting card) portraits of theatrical performers and other celebrities, widely distributed from the 1860s. International histories of photography tend to mark the beginning of fashion photography as a distinct genre in the late nineteenth century. The early history of Australian fashion photography is still a largely unknown and under-researched area. In Australia some fashion photography, like the innovative modernist work of Athol Shmith, produced in the 1950s, is well represented in art museum collections and published histories. However, obscurity still surrounds Australian fashion photography’s broader history.

The search for the origin of fashion photography in Australia prompts the question: What is fashion photography? The most frequently offered answer is that fashion photography is photography that illustrates fashion. Victorian and Edwardian portraits of theatrical performers and other celebrities, together with postcards, inspired widespread sartorial imitation. However, the term fashion photography is usually reserved for a genre of photography whose primary purpose is to sell clothing—either itemized and listed as available for sale (editorial) or presented as part of a promotion for a fashion house or label (advertising). Hence its intimate link with the mass print media of newspapers and magazines.

The question of definition becomes more complex when we consider that a photograph can be used as a fashion photograph even though it was originally taken for another purpose, such as celebrity portraiture. Since early fashion photography is often indistinguishable from portraiture, named images of Australian theatrical celebrities from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries constitute an important archive of “proto-fashion photography.” In Australia the publication of photographs in this regard follows similar patterns to those that developed in France, Britain, and the United States.

The use of photography in fashion journalism occasionally appears in the late nineteenth century in colonial society newspapers such as Table Talk (1885–1939). There is an isolated instance of commercial fashion photography dated 1889 in the Brisbane magazine The Princess: A Lady’s Newspaper by photographer Paul Poulson. But for the most part, enhanced by the refinement of the half-tone process, we find in the early twentieth century it is photographs of society weddings and fashionable celebrities that are the most frequently reproduced in newspapers. Extended features such as “Seen in Melbourne Streets,” typically photo-grids of fashionable men and women, or scenes from Melbourne’s famous Flemington races, were also common. With isolated exceptions, print advertisements for clothing and department stores in Australia remained hand-drawn rather than photographic until at least the second decade of the twentieth century.

The years between Australian Federation (1901) and the outbreak of World War I were marked by social progress and an economic boom. Australia had recovered from the depression of the 1890s, and women, in particular, were given more democratic rights, including the vote. In the major cities of Melbourne and Sydney, this period coincided with significant growth in the retail industry. Department stores led the way in all aspects of retailing, including advertising, which created and stimulated the wants of the growing middle-class population. As in other industrialized nations, advertising and the novel leisure activity of shopping belonged to a new culture of mass production and its consumption. By the 1890s consumerism reached an unprecedented level, along with the creation of a range of new service positions for women, such as shop assistants. Women, as managers of the domestic budget, also became the main targets of advertisers.

The development of Australian advertising photographs unfolded on the pages of popular magazines such as The Lone Hand, an elaborate and influential monthly cultural magazine. The first fashion advertisement in The Lone Hand that used photography, rather than line drawing, appeared in the September 1907 issue, entitled “Portfolio of Spring and Summer Millinery Fashions,” for the department store Anthony Hordern and Sons. This color insert into the normally black-and-white publication featured eight pages of multiple, hand-colored, head-and-shoulder photographs. Hats were an enormously important fashion accessory for the entire first decade of the twentieth century, and for women a particular indicator of their femininity. Other sites for fashion advertising included mail-order catalogs. For women who lived outside the cities, mail-order fashion was important in a country as large as Australia. Established department stores such as David Jones produced lavishly illustrated books twice a year. For the most part, however, the clothes in these publications were illustrated rather than photographed, until at least the mid-1920s.

The Lone Hand offers many examples of the struggle between drawing and photography for dominance in the representation of male, but particularly female, fashions. One of the most instructive examples is a Robert Hurst Shoes advertisement from May 1910. The advertisement features a formally innovative and humorous montage of multiple photographs combined with hand drawing to create the striking effect of a giant-sized woman resting her foot on top of a shoe factory, demanding her shoes. While advertisements for dresses and corsets continued to utilize the idealizing mode of fashion illustration, one advertisement for Gowing Bros. suits from 1910 illustrates the evidential role of photography at the time. It shows a hand-colored photograph of a man in a suit, with the text: “The suit here actually photographed shows how Gowings ‘cut’.” This is one of the first examples of Australian fashion advertising photography.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the relationship between the fashion and theater worlds was one of crucial interdependence, mediated by photography. The pages of The Lone Hand in the 1910s reveal an extraordinary hunger for detailed descriptions of clothing, as fashion photography was so limited. Theatrical reviews and written accounts of stage celebrities’ wardrobes describe their garments in close detail. The success of New Zealand–born, Australian-based sisters May and Mina Moore, who produced stylish portraits with chiaroscuro lighting of theatrical personalities, can be seen as the visual element of this interest. It was somewhat later in the 1920s that true fashion photography responded to, and fueled, a desire to know more about the clothes of influential women, which came predominately from overseas (Paris in particular) and offered details about where customers could obtain them or their replicas. There is almost no fashion photography of men’s dress at this time.

Modern Australian Fashion Photography

Histories of Australian photography that deal with fashion imagery usually mark its origins in the pages of the high-quality Sydney journal The Home in the 1920s. The Home was a taste-making magazine in the international style of American and British Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and the Tatler. It published images and essays on modern, applied, and decorative arts alongside fashion, and it patronized local art photographers. The involvement of art photographers, both as “amateur” pictorialists and as commercial illustrators, was crucial to the development of Australian fashion photography. Pictorialist photography consisted of mostly black-and-white or sepia-colored photographs that emulated painting.

Along with a new nationalist taste in graphic design, interior design, and fashion itself, The Home reveals a fluidity of photographic styles revolving around an imported modernist photographic aesthetic found in the early work of Max Dupain and Russell Roberts in the mid-1930s. Credited photographic fashion work, in which a photographer is privileged as a creative figure, appears from the first issue in 1920, in which the editorial promoted its “special photographic service to record the latest and best achievements in dress that commerce has been able to make available for Australian wardrobes.”

The Home’s first official photographer was Harold Cazneaux (1878–1953), a personal friend of the publisher, Sydney Ure Smith, and a well-known Sydney-based pictorialist. The pictorialist photographers—notably John Kauffmann and Walter Barnett (before he left for England)—had helped legitimate the expressive potentials of artistic photography. Ure Smith understood the potential of photography as a modern medium, and the possibility that a photographer might adopt a unique style was increasingly being recognized. It is in this context that Cazneaux’s elevation as the magazine’s chief Australian fashion photographer of the 1920s is noted. Like Cazneaux, Monte Luke (1885–1962) regularly contributed to The Home in the 1920s, his style influenced by his earlier glamour work in the theater and practice as an exhibiting art photographer.

A cropped version of this photograph of Doris Zinkeisen appeared as Australian style magazine The Home’s first photographic cover in February 1931.Photograph by Harold Cazneaux. National Gallery of Victoria.

Various women portrait photographers regularly provided images for The Home at this time—including Ruth Hollick and Pegg Clarke in Melbourne and Bernice Agar and Judith Fletcher in Sydney. But although women photographers were often applauded for sensitivity toward their subjects, the status of professional artist usually eluded them—especially after the consolidation of the pictorialist aesthetic and the professionalization of fashion photography following the return of men from the Great War (World War I). The contribution of women photographers to the early history of Australian fashion photography is less recognized. Ruth Hollick (1883–1977), for example, was the most successful of the group but is better known for her portraits of children, while her professional fashion work has been neglected until relatively recently. The photographs of Cazneaux and Hollick dominated early issues of The Home in the 1920s and included pictorialist-influenced portraits of society women in the most glamorous attire of the day. Of these, the rare images whose primary purpose shifted away from portraiture to the display of itemized clothes for sale effectively serve as the first credited Australian fashion photographs.

Despite the Depression, the 1930s saw a rapid growth in commercial photographic studios. While women had featured prominently as glamour portraitists, men soon dominated the emerging profession of fashion photographer. In the 1930s Russell Roberts (1904–1999), Max Dupain (1911–1992), and Athol Shmith (1914–1990) all frequently worked on fashion commissions for The Home as well as other magazines. As exponents of the so-called New Photography, which reached Australia via European publications, their work was of particular interest to advertising clients, who quickly realized that bold compositions, sharp and often unusual angles, and dramatic lighting would make for innovative product presentations. This fact, combined with innovations in printing technologies and artificial studio lighting, as well as the rise in local magazine publishing, meant that fashion photography in the 1930s was a viable profession in Australia.

Russell Roberts is known for advocating progressive photo-illustration techniques in fashion and portraiture and is credited with establishing the largest studio of its kind in Australia at that time. With a sharp eye and astute business sense, Roberts effectively created a new style for Australian fashion photography. His studio seems to have pioneered the use of color film for fashion photographs in the early 1930s. Along with traditional studio glamour work, Roberts’s Sydney-based studio brought a modern and more naturalistic approach, inspired by location shots from Europe. Roberts’s successful studio played a vital role early in the careers of many of Australia’s most influential photographers, including Max Dupain.

By 1935 Dupain was cast as the leader of avant-garde photography when a portfolio of his modernist still lifes and radical nudes and figure studies was published in Art in Australia. Some of these images had surrealist overtones, expressing Dupain’s enthusiasm for the work of the Paris-based American artist Man Ray. Soon Dupain’s fashion images, inspired by the work of leading international figures, began appearing in the up-market lifestyle magazine The Home. An apprentice of Cecil Bostock (1884–1939)—well known for his fashion work for David Jones—Dupain deployed both the dramatic lighting and geometry of modernist advertising and some of the contorted spaces and odd conjunctions of surrealism. Most of Dupain’s known fashion work, however, is relatively somber: static, studio-based tableaux of women and clothes. Dupain left fashion entirely after the 1940s in favor of architectural and documentary photography.

It is important to note that while the strict separation of commercial and artistic photography is of recent invention, commercial photographers did not think of themselves as artists. In many cases fashion photography was only one of the genres these photographers worked in. Practitioners like Dupain and Laurence Le Guay (1917–1990) are better remembered for their documentary work, while Hans Hasenpflug (1907–1977), Roberts, Janice Wakely (1935–), and Henry Talbot (1920–1999) are today less well known.

Hans Hasenpflug was largely self-taught, and his work represents an interest in the visual vocabulary of New Photography and capturing action. His most famous images produce a tonal rhythm across the surface of the print, a formal tension in content and composition typical of New Photography as it sought to embrace fresh ways of seeing the modern world. Hasenpflug worked for the influential advertising studio of Russell Roberts in the mid-1930s, after his arrival in Australia from Germany in 1927. After 1937 Hasenpflug worked for Athol Shmith’s studio in Melbourne.

Athol Shmith is today recognized as the greatest pioneer of modern Australian fashion photography. He began to take fashion photographs in Melbourne in the 1930s at a time when the profession of fashion modeling was still in its infancy. By the 1940s Shmith had established a reputation for elegant fashion photography that incorporated the conventions of modernist photographic practice and seductive Hollywood glamour portraiture. His was an elegance of simple postures, elegant backdrops, and often dramatic close-ups. Shmith continued to be a leader in fashion photography through to the 1960s, when his style began to seem dated.

Post–World War II Photography

In 1946 Laurence Le Guay established a magazine called Contemporary Photography, which focused on documentary photography’s role in exposing and redressing the social ills besetting postwar Australia. Contemporary Photography also published fashion photographs and works of commercial photo-illustration from the burgeoning class of professional photographers. In 1947 Le Guay entered into a partnership with John Nisbett in a studio that specialized in fashion and commercial illustration. Later, his work occasionally took on space age themes. Other important figures of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s include Ray Leighton, Geoffrey Lee, Rob Hillier, Geoffrey Powell, John Nisbett, and Norman Ikin.

By the 1950s—a time of affluence following the constraints of the war years—fashion advertising and illustration work had become a major specialist industry for photographers and their growing teams of collaborators. Fashion photographic modeling was becoming a career in its own right, and increasingly standard rates for sessions were being set. A professional training course for such models was started in Sydney in 1947, supervised by the fashion photographer Robert Hillier. Vogue’s Australian edition was established in 1959. This was the era of grand Collins Street studios in Melbourne and major clients such as Myers, as chain department stores benefited from the upsurge in production of consumer goods following World War II. But as curator Gael Newton has observed, agencies tended to be in awe of overseas trends in fashion photography and wanted locals simply to copy such models. The individual photographer’s control over design and approach was increasingly subject to direction from specialized advertising departments.

Helmut Neustadter (1920–2004) (who changed his name to Newton in 1946) arrived in Australia in 1940, after fleeing Nazi Germany via Singapore. In Australia, he was interned at the Tatura detention camp. After a stint in the Australian army, Newton began working as a photographer in Melbourne, taking up the profession from his earlier training in a fashionable Berlin salon in the 1930s known as Yva’s. By the mid-1950s Newton was established as one of Australia’s leading fashion photographers, his work regularly appearing in the newly independent Vogue Australia beginning in 1959. In Newton’s Australian work there is already a characteristic technical precision and a breezy appreciation of coolly beautiful women (such as the celebrity model and personality Maggie Tabberer), yet there is no hint of the dark erotic mood, the “porno-chic” that was to become Newton’s distinctive contribution to photography. His Australian fashion images make maximum use of bright outdoor settings—the beach, lush gardens, or picturesque ghost towns such as Walhalla. He used urban environments imaginatively—road signs appear often, adding a lighthearted, optimistic view of the city and geometric drama. In 1961 Newton left Australia, believing that it was possible to build a career in fashion photography only in Paris or New York. Indeed, he became one of the most significant international names in fashion photography of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Australian model Patricia “Bambi” Tuckwell in a Dior dress, 1949, as photographed by Athol Shmith. The work of his 1950s heyday was characterized by his use of elegant modernist compositions with dramatic lighting. He is recognized as the greatest pioneer of modern Australian fashion photography.Courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Responding to the altered social, political, and economic conditions of the 1950s, Bruno Benini (1925–2001) created a style of photography that conveyed an image of opulence and sophistication. Along with Melbourne’s other leading fashion photographers of the time, Athol Shmith and Helmut Newton, Benini positioned his models as glamour icons and created a new ideal of femininity responsive to the evolving fashion industry of the 1950s. In many respects the brilliance and intrigue of Benini’s photography during the 1950s lay within his use of unexpected locations to create a deliberate ambiguity. For example, he shot one of his most famous photographs outside a dingy soup kitchen as a means of augmenting the impression of sensuous luxury through stark contrasts.

In a decade when it was rare for women to work professionally as photographers, Janice Wakely established the Penthouse Model Agency and Photographic Studio (1963–1965) with co-model Helen Homewood. Wakely and Homewood’s enterprise functioned both as modeling agency and photographic studio—probably the first of its kind in Australia. Wakely produced photographs for Australian fashion houses, designers, and companies like Sportscraft and Watersun swimwear.

Like Newton, Henry Talbot was an émigré artist who brought an invigorating internationalism to Australian photography. Talbot arrived in Australia in 1940 aboard the infamous Duneraan overcrowded ship of European “enemy aliens.” Initially he worked in some of the leading photographic studios of the day and quickly established a significant reputation, and in 1956 he was invited to go into partnership with Newton (with whom he formed a friendship during the war). The Melbourne studio of Helmut Newton and Henry Talbot was a great success, securing a vast number of clients, including Sportscraft and the Australian Wool Board. The fresh modern look of his work—linking contemporary fashion and popular culture—reflected the emerging youth culture and widespread social changes that characterized the 1960s. In these years the exoticism of an overseas shoot became more common, as Australian fashion was gaining international credibility and overseas air travel was more prevalent.

In the late 1960s fashion photography in Australia gained a new confidence. With an increased reliance on higher-quality color processing, the exuberant fashion photography of this period was best exemplified by the images found in POL magazine (1968–1985), later revived as Pol Oxygen. POL gave unprecedented freedom to individual innovators such as Wesley Stacey and Grant Mudford (both better known for their conceptual documentary work), as well as Brett Hilder, Dieter Muller, Rennie Ellis, and John Lethbridge. Most were art or documentary photographers who made crossovers into fashion or social commentary. Part of the first wave of desktop publishing, POL reflected a changing Australia that was being radicalized by the 1960s. It featured high production values, a quirky sense of humor, and a liberated sense of sexuality. In the 1970s, in tune with a new cultural nationalism in Australia, Uluru (Ayres Rock) and Alice Springs also became fashionable backdrops. From this period onward Australian fashion photography exhibits a general obsession with nature. Unsurprisingly, given the country’s coast-hugging population, the beach has become a key backdrop for Australian fashion photography.

After the 1970s

A new wave of magazines followed in the 1970s and 1980s. Rag Times, produced in a newspaper format, was a short-lived magazine that ran beginning in 1977. It was informal, offbeat, streetwise, and guided by a romantic manifesto based around personal freedom. The best-known magazine of the 1980s was Follow Me, which catered to a more commercialized market, as well as new wave crossovers between art, music, and fashion. Grant Matthews’s vibrant and often Australiana-style images were typical. Along with Matthews, Monty Coles and Peter McLean’s work was featured in the first exhibition of contemporary Australian fashion photography shown in an art context. It took place at the Australian Centre for Photography and was entitled Image Perfect: Australian Fashion Photography in the 80s, curated by Sandy Edwards in 1987.

Since the early to mid-1990s a number of independent, street-style/fashion/lifestyle magazines have come onto the Australian market, and many are now established names, such as Black and White, Cream, Oyster, Yen, and Russh. The Australian market consumes more magazines per capita than any other country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Most fashion magazines continue to be published in Sydney, as has been the case historically. More magazines, each with their own house style and design formats for specialized readerships, have meant more places for publication and more varied assignments for photographers. Independent magazines are also an area where fashion photographs frequently cross into an art and popular culture mix. While magazines like Vogue Australia tend to employ only a small number of regular photographers (Richard Bailey, Troyt Coburn, and Justin Smith are some of the key names in the first decade of the twenty-first century), faster turnaround times, lower budgets, and fewer advertising constraints also mean independent magazines are the chief publishing avenues for aspiring fashion photographers. Some are short-lived, such as Pierre Touissant’s Processed, which had only two issues in the early 2000s, which is typical of start-up magazines designed as quick promotional tools for those involved.

Increasingly, fashion photographers do not limit themselves to working for Australian magazines. As well as assignments in Europe and the United States, Australian fashion photographers are now regularly working in Asia. Likewise, Australian magazines more frequently publish the work of international photographers. One of the most original of the new independent magazines is the biannual art-fashion publication for men and women doingbird, edited by Max Doyle and Malcolm Watt. It features only a handful of Australian photographers in preference for international photographers, models, writers, and illustrators. Indeed, doingbird has a higher international than local circulation, countering the general flow of imported magazines. Contemporary Australian fashion photographers who regularly work overseas include Lyn Balzer and Tony Perkins, Harold David, Liz Ham, Derek Henderson, Ingvar Kenne, Tim Richardson, and Justin Smith. All exhibit their work in galleries or are involved with self-publishing and collaborations with artists and fashion designers. Some of these photographers, notably Richardson and Smith, are also experimenting with digital imaging in distinctive ways.

Because the market for fashion and fashion photography in Australia is small, conservatism still rules in the glossy magazines; only very few photographers manage to go beyond conventional formulas and create their own style. There appears to be a continued obsession with the landscape—both the bush and the beach—that is common to all forms of artistic expression in white settler Australia, from film to literature. This often ironic exploration of the Australian environment may be ascribed to an uneasy relationship with a largely uninhabitable environment, now figured as the background for cutting-edge urban fashion imagery.

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Crombie Isobel. Athol Shmith Photographer. Melbourne, Australia: Schwartz Publishing, 1989.

Find in Library Hall Barbara, and Jenni Mather. Australian Women Photographers 1840–1960. Melbourne, Australia: Greenhouse Publications, 1986.

Find in Library Maynard Margaret. Out of Line: Women and Style in Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2001.

Find in Library Maynard Margaret. ““Where Do Flappers Fit In? The Photography of Modern Fashion in Australia”.” Cultural History 25 (2006): 273–290.

Find in Library Newton Gael. Shades of Light: Photography and Australia, 1839–1988. Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1988.

Find in Library Palmer Daniel. ““Tracing the Origins of Australian Fashion Photography”.” The La Trobe Journal 76 (Spring 2005): 87–103.

Find in Library Palmer Daniel, and Kate Rhodes, eds. Photofile 71 (Winter 2004).

Find in Library Sayers Andrew, ed. POL: Portrait of a Generation. Canberra, Australia: National Portrait Gallery, 2003.

Find in Library Van Wyk Susan. The Paris End: Photography, Fashion and Glamour. Melbourne, Australia: National Gallery of Victoria, 2006.

Find in Library Willis Anne-Marie. Picturing Australia: A History of Photography. North Ryde, Australia: Angus & Robertson, 1988.

See also Making and Retailing Exclusive Dress in Australia—1940s to 1960s; The Australiana Phenomenon in Australia.