Since the 1850s, photography has influenced how Australians have viewed society, and played a critical role in Australia’s evolving national identity. Throughout the 20th century, press, magazine and television photography attained acceptance as a compelling and separate record, and the professional status of photographers gained credibility, but its trajectory has never been linear or inevitable.
The first Australian magazine reproduction of a photograph appeared in 1888. Subsequently, press photography was influenced by the popularity of British and American pictorials, shifts in visual representation and the impact of cinema. After 1900, photographs became a part of daily journalism in both the United Kingdom and United States, especially in the mass-circulation tabloids. On 22 April 1908, the Melbourne daily broadsheets, the Argus and the Age, published the first photographs in Australian newspapers.
Photography captured the Australian public imagination, and newspaper proprietors began to exploit the interest—though the pictorial side of news reporting was mainly confined to the weeklies and magazines. (Sir) Keith Murdoch, inspired by Lord Northcliffe’s London tabloids and the Daily Mirror’s enviable circulation, launched the Sun News-Pictorial in 1922. It was Australia’s first daily pictorial newspaper, with four full pages of illustrations in addition to over 20 photographs scattered through the rest of the pages. The Sun initially hired four staff photographers, but no more than 10 press photographers in total were employed in each major city during the 1920s.
Despite the low representation of press photographers, enduring stylistic trends were quickly established. The ‘hook’ and the use of the ‘splash’ picture were deemed major developments; crime and fear, human-interest stories and sport became popular visual features. Public debates about ‘horror pictures’ and their impact on public morality, and the influence of the ‘terrible’ American pictorial tabloids, also prevailed.
Industrial recognition of photographers was a more gradual process. Few photographers were employed on daily newspapers when the Australian Journalists’ Association (AJA, later the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance) was formed in 1911. In 1920, the AJA invited photographers and artists to become members. Subsequently, there was a constant battle for their improved working conditions, and for attribution, copyright ownership, higher award rates and transparency over pay and overtime. Photographers wrote to the AJA’s newspaper, the Journalist, from the mid-1920s, objecting to the pay disparity between photographers and journalists. Much was also made of the physical and personal dangers to photographers and later cinematographers.
By the 1920s, technological innovation paralleled the growing use of photographs, in particular the half-tone process, which made possible the reproduction of photographs. Previously, press and magazine photographers and Australia’s two World War I Official Photographers, Frank Hurley and Hubert Wilkins, had been captive to box cameras and tripods, and glass plate negatives.
The invention of the Leica camera in Germany in 1925 ushered in the new genre of photojournalism, the purpose of which was to tell a visual narrative. This portable camera with film negatives allowed photographers greater latitude to move with the action as events unfolded. The improvements in technology also enhanced the quality of photographs and their reproduction, and hastened the dissemination of images. This was particularly critical for the Australian press, which was always under-resourced and struggled with its geographical isolation.
Despite these seismic changes in the industry, the mainstream broadsheets were resistant to the adoption of photography due to industry perceptions that the image was considered inferior to more serious text reporting because of its association with the populist tabloid press. Pictorial magazine editors had no such qualms, and the 1930s represented the beginning of their ascent, with successful magazines including Australasian Post (1864–2002), Smith’s Weekly (1919–50), the Australian Women’s Weekly (1933– ), Walkabout (1934–78) and Pix (est. 1938, merging with People in 1962).
The rise of pictorial magazines allowed the public new ways to imagine Australia and themselves. A seminal group of photographers sought commissioned commercial and magazine work (which invariably coincided with successful public exhibitions), including Hurley, Wilkins and later Max Dupain, Laurence Le Guay, Athol Shmith and David Moore. The reputation of the two pioneers, Hurley and Wilkins, was established by their documentation of Antarctic exploration and later war. Expedition photography embodied the importance of place and travel for Australian audiences: the bush, beach culture, expressive pictorialism and ‘intimate glimpses of Aborigines in the outback’ were staple features of the pictorial magazines.
The magazines offered photographers more flexible deadlines, improved production techniques, by-line recognition and greater autonomy. From the inception of news photography, however, the tension between the photograph as a form of art, as evidence and a means of representation was constantly debated. Some photographers struggled with the polarity between the photographic imperative. Hurley produced composite photographs combining negatives in order to convey the multiplicity of action and the staging of scenes, and believed the embellished aesthetic was more important than authenticity.
As the pictorial magazines rose to prominence, there was still caution in the industry about the use of photographs. The fundamental justifications for newspaper photography—immediacy and visual evidence of images—were undisputed. Yet images were still used arbitrarily by the daily pictorial newspapers and sparingly in the broadsheets.
The immediacy of the photograph was also dependent on technological innovation. In 1935, the Associated Press (AP) launched its Wirephoto service that sent photographs more swiftly and became as revolutionary as the invention of the telegraph a century before. It alleviated some of the logistical difficulties experienced by photographers, particularly during World War II. However, working conditions remained challenging. Still and moving images were taken in a vacuum, picture transmission to Australia remained slow and the protection of photographic film was a constant preoccupation.
In addition, all photographers’ work during World War II was pooled, censored and uncredited by the Department of Information, which led to the resignation of George Silk and Damien Parer. Silk later became one of Life magazine’s most fêted sports photographers. Parer’s footage from Papua, which was included in the Cinesound documentary Kokoda Front Line, helped to secure an Academy Award in 1943 for director Ken G. Hall.
The visual representation of AIF and Anzac iconography in war reporting from the time of World War I was closely guarded. The Australian military and press have always been assiduous censors, and the Australian media has refused to publish photographs of ‘our dead’
The Australian press was also slow to adopt the photographic essay. This had become a new way of incorporating images in narrative form, and was used to great effect by Allied press photographers when covering World War II and the liberation of the concentration camps. In Australia, the wire photographs were used sparingly, and story and image were rarely matched.
The tendency to converge and conflate the popular historical memory of Australian press photography in the narratives of international photojournalism is both problematic and misleading. The Australian experience has been different and trends were adopted more gradually. Australian photographers did not experience a ‘golden age’, a period commonly defined by the creation of Life as a weekly magazine in 1936 and its demise as a weekly publication in 1972. Nor did pictorial magazines have the same cultural resonance in Australia. In addition, ‘photojournalism’ as a term did not have the same currency and was not used in Australia until the 1970s.
Photography only became a separate and compelling staple in Australian newspaper journalism in the late 1950s. Until then, press photography was often subsidiary. Australia did usher one important development when the Argus became the first newspaper in the world to print coloured photographs on 28 July 1952.
By the 1960s, photographs became more critical in the Australian media. As visual conventions changed, iconic imagery chronicled social and political change: feminism, Indigenous rights, the Vietnam War, the peace movement and protests against capital punishment. More press photographers worked across the rounds but their work remained hindered by staggered newspaper production, morning and afternoon deadlines, the difficulties of photographic development and the constant chase for film stock.
Photographers slowly diversified: Mervyn Bishop, a news and documentary photographer, was the first Indigenous Australian to work on a metropolitan daily newspaper when he joined the Sydney Morning Herald as a cadet in 1963.
The conditions for female press photographers were also limited. Unlike their male counterparts, they found newspaper appointments were not readily available. Pat Holmes is thought to have been the first full-time female photographer on an Australian newspaper. In 1943 she was offered a job by AP, and joined the Sydney Sun as a press photographer. Newspapers employed female photographers more frequently from the 1970s, but gender inequality continued. A 1993 survey of Australian newspaper photographers found that regional newspapers were more receptive to female photographers, with women comprising up to half of the photographic staff in the non-metropolitan press in contrast to 7 per cent on metropolitan papers. The first female photographer to win a Walkley Award was Verity Chambers in 1992. Women photographers have subsequently achieved much greater recognition but they are still under-represented in the newsroom.
Australian television did not immediately take over the role of visualising the nation as it had in the United States, nor was it as prominent during the Vietnam War. The antecedent of television was the Cinesound Review newsreels, which covered all the major events in Australia and the world from 1931 to 1970. Their demise coincided with improving television technology and its capacity to film live. Similarly, newspapers could not compete with the immediacy of television footage, and the problem of faster transmission remained.
A group of celebrated Australian television cinematographers emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Many were drawn from the experienced cohort of cameramen employed by Cinesound (which merged to become Cinesound and Movietone Productions in 1970). The ABC recruited a group of young Tasmanian cinematographers. The most acclaimed was Neil Davis, who worked for the ABC and later as Visnews’s cameraman and correspondent for South-East Asia until he was killed in 1985 while filming a coup in Bangkok. The ABC’s current affairs programs, most notably Four Corners, provided exceptional training. Other cinematographers and freelance photographers (and a litany of filmmakers) refined their craft on local dramas and in television comedy. However, the majority of international news footage was, and continues to be, supplied to Australia by news agencies and through syndication.
Most Australian photographers who worked for newspapers were not generally by-lined until the early 1980s. When the Walkley Awards were established in 1956, the ‘Best Photograph’ was included in the five categories; five awards are now offered for visual representation.
The digital revolution from 1989 caused some of the most revolutionary changes in press photography and its dissemination. The Leafax scanned negatives and recorded photographs as digital information, and eventually transmitted colour images in less than 10 seconds. It was not until the beginning of the new millennium that colour photography was a familiar and then a common feature in Australian newspapers.
With the introduction of digital cameras, photojournalism had finally caught up to the capacity of television photography for the immediate transmission of still and moving images. Today, press and magazine photographers are free from the most restricting aspects of their jobs. Computer technology scans images directly into the design and editors have the ability to receive photos digitally immediately after capture. Prints are seldom made, digital chips can store up to a thousand images and are less sensitive to exposure, and film was largely redundant by 2000. Digital photography had become faster and more affordable in a competitive industry preoccupied with both.
Press and magazine photographers have also diversified. There are new mediums for gathering and exhibiting visual news: dynamic multimedia tools, online video, slideshows, blogging, social media and photo-sharing sites. Television cinematographers have also attained much greater autonomy: the new category of video journalists present, shoot and edit their own stories.
While the digital age has transformed production and liberated photographers, it also had some devastating impacts on their profession. Never before have more images been available. Australian newspapers and magazines continue to source the majority of international photographs from the major picture agencies, AP, Getty and Reuters (an over-reliance on wire and agency material has always been endemic in Australia).
Since 2011, many major Australian newspapers have lost an estimated 30 per cent of their staff photographers, and most departures have only been replaced on a casual basis. The decision in 2013 by the Chicago Sun-Times to terminate its full-time photographers and arm their journalists with smartphones has intensified the debate about the demise of photojournalism. In Australia, the combination of more accessible images, amateur or citizen photographers with their smartphones, cost-cutting and declining advertising revenue and audience has caused an alarming decline in the employment of staff photographers and a greater casualisation of its workforce. In May 2014 Fairfax Media announced it was all but disbanding its photographic department, calling for redundancies including 30 photographers. Fairfax plans to outsource many local photographic assignments to Getty Images. It further indicates a collapse of the traditional systems of distribution.
The essential role that photojournalists play as trained, skilled, visual witnesses should prevail no matter the media format, but photojournalists are experiencing unprecedented change. For television news, pictures remain the most critical part of the medium, and so far cinematographers have not yet experienced the same diminished employment opportunities.
REFs: K. Evans, ‘Still: A Cultural History of Press Photography in Australia’ (PhD thesis, 2001); G. Griffin, ‘A profile of Australian photographers’, Australian Studies in Journalism, 3 (1994).