A documentary impulse: Australian photographer Geoffrey Collings

The researching and recording of Australia’s photographic past reached a climax during the Bicentennial year with the publication of a major history and an important survey exhibition.1 Gael Newton, Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839–1988, Collins, Sydney, 1988. A survey exhibition of the same name was also mounted by Gael Newton at the Australian National Gallery, Canberra, in 1988. While most of this country’s notable photographers would as a consequence appear to have been reclaimed, the picture is still by no means complete. The work of significant practitioners continues to emerge, enlarging and sometimes altering our notions of particular historical periods. 

One such ‘rediscovery’ is Geoffrey Collings who, despite a long and active career in Australia as a photographer, film-maker and graphic designer, has to date received little critical attention. Two substantial groups of Collings’s photographs taken during the 1930s and 1940s have been purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria, allowing an assessment of his contribution to the photographic medium and an opportunity to record some of the details of his career. 

Geoffrey Franklin Collings was born in Hamilton, Queensland, on 10 November 1905, the second son of Ernest and Grace (nee Chalk) Collings. He studied at Brisbane Technical Art School from 1919 to 1921 and for the next three years was employed as a trainee commercial artist by various firms, among them George N. Orr’s agency in Brisbane. In 1924 he left the agency to work as a jackaroo on properties in Queensland and the Northern Territory He returned to Brisbane in 1927 to freelance as a commercial artist.


In 1930 Collings travelled to London where he worked as assistant studio manager for the book distributors W. H. Smith and Sons. At night he attended art classes at both the St Martin’s School of Art and the London School of Arts and Crafts. He returned to Sydney in 1933, where he met and married Dulcie (Dahl) Willmont,2 For biographical details see Bernard Smith, Australian Painting 1788–1960, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1962; Dahl Collings: Port Fairy Paintings and Drawings, City of Hamilton Art Gallery, Hamilton, Victoria, 1982; and Alan McCulloch, Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Hutchinson, Melbourne, 1984. a talented painter and designer with whom he shared a remarkably close professional and personal relationship until her death in April 1987. 

The Collingses were always intensely concerned with the introduction of new design principles and techniques into their graphic work and in 1933 bought a Rolliflex camera. Geoffrey later recalled: ‘We saw the camera as a wonderful instrument for our graphic work – it allowed you to design in tones within the frame’.3 Interview with photographer by Isobel Crombie, 1 June 1988; tape held in the Department of Photography, NGV. While their impetus to photograph was initially as an aid to their design work it is apparent from the resultant images that they both soon came to regard photography as an independent aspect of their artistic productions. Of the pair, Geoffrey appears to have been the more interested in the medium and it is on his work that this article concentrates.    

Camden, New South Wales (fig. 1) was taken by Geoffrey Collings in 1934 and is his earliest surviving photograph. It is a dramatically cropped image of a light horseman in full flight, tent-pegging as he leans over his horse. Collings’s interest in the graphic tonal possibilities of black and white photography is evident in the contrast between the silvery-grey colour of the man’s shirt against the dark, sweating flanks of the horse and the shiny leather straps. It is also a study of movement – freezing the aggressive motions of horse and rider mid-stride in a tightly composed format. 

Stylistically the photograph is influenced by the ‘new photography’ or modernist movement which developed in Germany and the Soviet Union in the 1920s. Photographers such as László Moholy-Nagy and Alexander Rodchenko broke from the traditional soft-focus pictorialist style which had been dominant  since the late nineteenth century to produce images they felt were more applicable to the modern age. Characterised by sharp focus, dramatic angles, radical cropping and bold compositions, the style came to greatly influence photographic practice in most western countries. Its effects were apparent in Australia in the mid-1930s among photographers such as Max Dupain, Olive Cotton, Wolfgang Sievers and Margaret Michaelis-Sachs.4 See for instance Newton; Helen Ennis & Isobel Crombie, Australian Photographs, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1988. 

Collings was to experience these new forces in photography more directly when he and Dahl travelled to London in 1935. Shortly after arriving, Dahl was offered a position as a designer in a studio with Moholy-Nagy who had himself recently moved to London from Germany where he had taught at the Weimar and Dessau Bauhaus. These enormously influential institutions were committed to the development and production of new forms in architecture, industrial and graphic design and other fields. Both the Collingses were to find Moholy-Nagy’s approach to design inspiring, and contact with him, and the Hungarian-born photographer and designer Gyorgy Kepes, helped foster their enthusiasm for bringing the Bauhaus principles of ‘form follows function’ back to Australia.

It was during the next three years spent in London and on travels in France and Spain that Geoffrey Collings was to show his greatest fascination for the photographic medium, producing a substantial and accomplished group of work. 

London zoo 1935 (fig. 2) is one of the most striking images from this period. It is an upward-angled shot of three children on a flight of steps. A sense of drama, even menace, is conveyed by two anonymous figures whose dark forms seen from behind are moving towards the children. The bold cropping of one of these figures and the use of strongly contrasting tones make this a powerful photograph. 


Another photograph taken at the same time, London zoo 1935 (fig. 3), is gentler in mood, showing a child held in a man’s arms and pointing at one of the exhibits at the zoo. The soft natural light highlights both the child’s enquiring expression and the protective gestures of the man.    

Collings’s evident humanitarian approach to his subjects and his interest in picturing seemingly ordinary events in life reflect the influence on his work of the documentary film movement which was gaining strength in Britain at this time. 


One of the leading exponents of this movement was John Grierson, who defined documentary as the ‘creative treatment of actuality’, a definition which applies equally to film and photography. Collings was to meet Grierson along with the film-makers Humphrey Jennings and the American Robert Flaherty and, as a consequence, began to produce his own films. The first of these was taken on a trip to Spain in 1936, only weeks before the Civil War, and was subsequently used as propaganda material by an anti-Franco group in London. 

It was most probably his experiences in Spain which inspired the photograph Hyde Park Corner, London 1936 (fig. 4), which shows members of the Young Communist League at a rally. Its upward, dynamic viewpoint gives a heroic inflection to the marching drummers.  

In a wittier vein Collings photographed one of Britain’s great customs – that of tea-drinking – in English Derby 1936 (fig. 5). The three ladies maintain a certain formality with cup and saucer in hand despite their circumstances. The cluttered nature of the area that surrounds them is visually relieved by the white sign they lean against. 

Spare, pared-down lines and an interest in form are apparent in London 1937 (fig. 6), a photograph of Dahl in bathing cap and swimsuit. As is characteristic of much of Collings’s work, it is tightly composed, cropping out unnecessary details and closing in on the subject to give an immediate graphic effect. 


Another portrait of Dahl, London 1937 (fig. 7), exhibits a similar approach. It has a clean, sharp look partially created by using harsh daylight to emphasise her strong profile. Her pose is that of the modern woman – confident and self-assured in her own role as photographer. 


In 1938 the Collingses had an exhibition of their commercial art and photography with colleague and friend Alastair Morrison. Titled Three Australians, it was held at Lund Humphries in Bedford Square, London. Fifteen photographs by Geoffrey Collings were included, arranged, as he recalled, ‘edge to edge in a checkerboard pattern of light and dark so the whole screen was covered in photographs’.5 Collings interview.

In response to the work, E. McKnight Kauffer wrote in a small leaflet accompanying the exhibition (fig. 8): 

We must get rid of the idea from our minds that Australia only stands for sheep farming, the Life of the Open Air and Sports – especially Cricket. Slowly and surely there are influences at work introducing other aspects of what might be called a more intellectual life. These three Australian Artists are symptomatic of this gradual change: their approach to designing and photography is the same as in this country, but it has the added attraction of simple directness, which seems to come from their affinity with the open-air life of their own country.

In the same year, at the suggestion of photographer Gyorgy Kepes, Collings also sent a selection of work to the exhibition Foto 37 in Amsterdam.

Filled with enthusiasm and new ideas from their time spent in London, Dahl and Geoffrey Collings returned to Australia in 1939, coming via Tahiti where they made a documentary film, Tiare Tahiti, about life in contemporary Polynesia. Once back in Sydney they established the Design Centre – specialising in industrial design – with R. Haughton James. Many of the layouts, designs and photographs they had made while overseas were displayed at the David Jones Galleries in June 1939. 

In the small catalogue for the show Haughton James described the couple as part of a new breed of modern designers creating ‘a new kind of useful art to suit our new ways of living’.6 Dahl and Geoffrey Collings, David Jones Gallery, Sydney, June 1939, p. 3. In a philosophy inherited from the German Bauhaus he continued: ‘They have no need for narrow specialization. In this respect there is basically no difference between planning a poster, an electric iron, an exhibition stand or the scenario for a documentary film’.7 ibid. Producing photographs could also have been added to such a list.

In the early 1940s Geoffrey Collings’s production of photographs waned, largely due to his increasing interest in film work and the demands of his job as art director at Woman Magazine. With the start of the Second World War he joined the Department of Home Security as a camouflage officer, making a series of drawings and gouaches relating to his experiences which he exhibited at the Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, in 1943.8 Exhibition of Pictures by Geoffrey Collings, Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, 1943. The following year he made the film Air Strip for the Allied Works Council. 

Collings played an active role in promoting the documentary film medium in Australia, writing small booklets in this period such as The Use of Film in Wartime and Let’s Make Films Work for Australia,9 Brochures held by Department of Photography, NGV. which he zealously distributed to interested parties.

In 1945 he was assistant director in the Harry Watt film The Overlanders, starring Chips Rafferty and Daphne Campbell. Collings took many still photographs during the shoot in the Northern Territory, recording the set, taking portraits of the cast and crew (which included Dahl as wardrobe designer and photographer Axel Poignant as camera assistant) and of the Aborigines who lived in the area. While not necessarily intended as exhibition prints, these photographs exhibit a great spontaneity and freshness as well as reflecting Collings’s love of the rather harsh outback regions they worked in.       

Collings was to make another series of photographs dealing with the country – although to very different ends – in 1947 while researching a film on soil erosion for the Department of Information. His film, titled Hold the Land, was probably influenced by his appreciation of American Pare Lorentz’s acclaimed documentary on the same subject called The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936).10 Collings produced a small brochure called Young Man with a Camera which reprinted an article on Pare by J. P. McEvoy. 

Similarly, photographs such as Eroded Mallee Country 1947 (fig. 9) and Children of the Mallee 1947 (fig. 10) show Collings’s admiration for another landmark American documentary project – the Farm Security Administration (FSA) which from 1935 to 1943 employed photographers such as Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and Dorothea Lange to record the effects of the Great Depression and poor farming practices in rural areas of the United States and government programmes to alleviate the problem. Like the FSA photographers, Collings’s concern was to show real-life events rendered directly and without obvious manipulation of the scene by the photographer.

The then commonly held belief in the power of the photograph as an objective recorder of reality is mediated in images such as Eroded Mallee Country where the photographer clearly made a range of decisions regarding the subject chosen, the angle of shadows (which accentuate the stark, denuded mallee root) and even the text which accompanies, and affects, our reading of the image. The salutory full title for the work is They cleared the Mallee, planted wheat, a few good years and the topsoil blew away.

Children of the Mallee is part of a group documenting some of the people who lived in this area. It is a direct, frontal image which charmingly captures a distinct period in our history. The clothes and hairstyles of the girls, along with the sign behind them, irrevocably link them to the rural Australia of the 1940s. 

Collings did not exhibit these photographs, using them instead as visual notes for his film work. Such a decision was unfortunate as the photographs present a view of this country different from much that was being produced by photographers working at the time. 

In 1950 Collings became picture editor at the United Nations in New York, living there for the next three years with Dahl and their two daughters Donna and Silver. In 1954 they returned to Sydney and established their own film company, which among its output produced a series of documentaries on Australian artists including Russell Drysdale, William Dobell and Sidney Nolan. Around this time Geoffrey Collings’s personal photography all but ceased as both he and Dahl concentrated on film work. In 1970 they retired, moving to an idyllic house in Kilcare Heights, New South Wales, where they resumed their painting pursuits. 

Perhaps because of his relative isolation at Kilcare Heights or, more likely, because he was never actively involved with the photographic community, Geoffrey Collings’s achievements in the medium of photography were largely overlooked in the researching of Australia’s photographic past that occurred in the 1970s. It was not until 1985 that his work was seen by Jennie Boddington, the curator of photography at the National Gallery of Victoria at the time and an old friend. A substantial body of Collings’s photographs eventually came to light, showing him to be a talented documentary photographer with a distinctive and original approach to his subjects and well worthy of inclusion in future histories of Australian photography in the 1930s and 1940s.       

Isobel Crombie, Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1989).


1          Gael Newton, Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839–1988, Collins, Sydney, 1988. A survey exhibition of the same name was also mounted by Gael Newton at the Australian National Gallery, Canberra, in 1988. 

2          For biographical details see Bernard Smith, Australian Painting 1788–1960, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1962; Dahl Collings: Port Fairy Paintings and Drawings, City of Hamilton Art Gallery, Hamilton, Victoria, 1982; and Alan McCulloch, Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Hutchinson, Melbourne, 1984. 

3          Interview with photographer by Isobel Crombie, 1 June 1988; tape held in the Department of Photography, NGV. 

4          See for instance Newton; Helen Ennis & Isobel Crombie, Australian Photographs, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1988.  

5          Collings interview. 

6          Dahl and Geoffrey Collings, David Jones Gallery, Sydney, June 1939, p. 3.  

7          ibid. 

8          Exhibition of Pictures by Geoffrey Collings, Macquarie Galleries, Sydney, 1943.  

9          Brochures held by Department of Photography, NGV. 

10        Collings produced a small brochure called Young Man with a Camera which reprinted an article on Pare by J. P. McEvoy.