Sharp focus and an unsentimental vision


Walking through the Mid-Century Modern exhibition, I was drawn to the sharply focused black and white photographs displayed throughout the show – both hanging on the walls, and seen on the pages of the numerous interior design magazines. Alongside the furniture vignettes, these photographs provide fascinating insights into the contemporary interior contexts and external facades of buildings that the furniture and design were displayed in, or specifically designed for.

While the images were intended to document and to advertise designs and architecture, the photographers often went beyond mere reportage.  Rather, they can be seen as visual collaborations – with the photographers responding directly to and enhancing the hard-edge angles, lines and forms that characterised this mid-century design. It is interesting to consider too the extent to which the designers were themselves inspired by the modern photography (heavily influenced by the European Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity movement) that had been circulating in Australia from the late 1930s onward.

In Australia, the principles of New Objectivity came to be known both through the first-hand experiences of émigré artists such as Wolfgang Sievers, Helmut Newton and Mark Strizic, and also through imported photography magazines and periodicals from the US and Europe. Copies of Das Deutsche Lichtbild (German Light Pictures) were a particular influence – the Annual had been established in 1927 and was a place for dialogue regarding the merits of photography, and presented a complex mix of works that reveal the transition from softly focused pictorialism into a radical, hard-edge modernism as demonstrated by the likes of Albert Renger-Patzsch and the Bauhaus master László Moholy-Nagy. Australian photographer Max Dupain, for example, is known to have owned several early copies of the periodical in the late 1930s and shared them with people accessing his studio in Sydney, including Olive Cotton, with their work soon exhibiting the influences of this European modern style.

The NGV Library has several volumes of Das Deutsche Lichtbild from the 1930s in the collection, and I was interested to look at these publications again to consider its influence. In the 1938 volume, I was struck by a photograph taken by Erich Balg depicting an interior scene of two chairs set at a table, furnished with a tea set and vase of flowers. The furniture is constructed from the distinctive tubular steel in a style similar to that championed by Marcel Breuer at the Bauhaus from the late 1920s; the table a merging of sleek steel legs and a circular glass top. The composition of the photograph, from a slightly raised perspective, clearly emphasises the modern shapes and lines of the furniture – an ordered still-life celebrating modern interior design, for a modern life.

Erich Balg was a renowned photographer who had published photographs in copies of US Vogue and the Liepzig-based lifestyle magazine Die Neue Linie (The New Line) in the mid-1930s, and at the time of this publication in 1938 was a teacher at the progressive Contempora School for Applied arts in Berlin. At the Contempora School Balg was also, significantly, a teacher (then colleague and collaborator) of Wolfgang Sievers, whose photographs feature as key examples of modern photography documenting modern Australian design throughout the exhibition. As my colleague Susan van Wyk wrote, Sievers had studied and then taught at the Contempora School from 1935, before fleeing Germany in 1938 and emigrating to Australia. When in his adopted country, Sievers became renowned for his application and translation of the innovative and avant-garde photographic principles which had been championed in Germany in the inter-war period, specifically the styles of the New Objectivity characterised primarily by precision, dramatic angles, sharp focus and an unsentimental vision.

As Australian designers and architects came to adopt their own modern style and post-war cosmopolitanism as evidenced in Mid-Century Modern, Sievers’ knowledge of European principles of photography (learnt from teachers such as Erich Balg and adapted and advanced in the Australian context) and his enthusiasm for promoting high quality design and placing ‘art in the service of industry’[1], undoubtedly formed a strong and unique influence on the ‘internationalist’ style of the moment.

[1] Helen Ennis, Wolfgang Sievers, Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2011, p. 51.

Image 1: Copies of Das Deutsches Lichtbild, Berlin: R. & B. Schultz, in the NGV Library.

Image 2:  Erich Balg, Untitled, 1938 in Das Deutsches Lichtbild, Berlin: R. & B. Schultz, 1938, p.12 (detail).