David Moore

1927 - 2003    |    NSW    |    Photojournalist

David Moore was Australia’s most travelled and widely published photographer and was widely regarded as Australia’s most influential photojournalist. His extraordinary body of work spanned 60 years and had a profound influence on a generation who came after. Moore’s work appeared in many of the most prestigious journals of the era including The Observer, Time-Life, Look, The New York Times and Sports Illustrated. He was a passionate advocate for acceptance of photography as an art form. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Australian Centre for Photography. Students and collectors still eagerly seek out his many published books.

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David Moore

If there were only one space for a photographer in the Australian Media Hall of Fame, David Moore would be the outstanding candidate.

He is the most successful Australian photojournalist of the 20th century. Working in the days of the big photographic magazines, his commissions read like a Who’s Who of great pictorial publications of the time: The Observer, Time, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, National Geographic, Time-Life books and The Black Star photographic agency.

Like Max Dupain’s 1937 epic Sunbaker, Olive Cotton’s 1935 masterpiece Teacup Ballet and Harold Cazneaux’s 1937 Spirit of Endurance tree, several of Moore’s pictures have entered the Australian popular conscience. They include Migrants arriving in Sydney 1966, President Johnson and Prime Minister Holt at Canberra Airport 1966, Sydney Harbour from 16,000 feet and, perhaps his most recognised work, Sisters of Charity, Washington DC 1956. This last photograph has special meaning for me; during research for an assignment while I was still at high school I first saw this picture and it was the ember that lit my photographic fire. I found it mesmerising and magical and I still do all these years later.

David Murray Moore was the second son of John and Dorothy Moore and was born in Darlinghurst, Sydney, on 6 April 1927. In an interview with photographer and writer Robert McFarlane just before his death in 2003, Moore revealed his early life and influences that shaped him as a photographer.

“Dad had a little block of land in Vaucluse and he built a little house, not particularly grand, about a kilometre from the sea,” Moore recalled. “I found a certain distinctive light (coming off the harbour) that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world.” This planted the seed for his magnificent Sydney Harbour from 16,000 Feet many years later.

Moore’s passion for photography started early. When he was just 11 years old, his father changed his life when he gave him a Coronet Box camera. “It was a magical instrument to me,” he explained to McFarlane. Later, his father provided a more advanced Kodak folding camera: “I remember loving that old camera.”

He used the Kodak to take his first published photograph at the Tudor House school in Moss Vale, NSW, where he boarded. “I turned my attention to a pond in the school grounds where the boys sailed model boats they made in the workshop. I took one of my first successful pictures which was reproduced in The Tudonian, the school magazine. In the middle of the group of boys was a 10-year-old who later became the Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser.”

Moore finished school in 1945. From a very early age he had wanted to follow his father into architecture, but fate intervened. After a brief stint in the Navy, Moore went to work on a property in Queensland owned by a friend of the family, Kenneth McQueen. McQueen was a skilled photographer and artist and he encouraged the young Moore to use his darkroom. He also introduced him to the work of Edward Weston when he showed him the copy of Weston’s book California and The West. Weston’s work made a deep impression on the young photographer. He told McFarlane he found the work “sharp, clean and purposeful, unaffected and true. I studied them in great depth.”

On his return to Sydney, Moore began work with an architectural firm but found it tedious. “I knew I didn’t want to be hunched over a board for the next 40 years. Besides, I was thinking about photography all the time.”

Moore summoned the courage to tell his father that he didn’t want to be an architect. He wanted to be a photographer. To his surprise, his father told him to do whatever he liked providing that he did it as well as he possibly could.

Moore began work at the Russell Roberts studios where he first worked with David Potts who would become a lifelong colleague. He learned the art of black and white printing in the Roberts darkrooms. He never found this work tedious. After a year Moore was retrenched and took up a position with Max Dupain.

“Working with Max Dupain released energy in me I didn’t know I possessed,” he remembered. “After finishing work at 6pm, I would often continue with my own work until 11 or so. It was a long tram ride home and then back to the studio by 8.30 the next day.”

Moore found that he had a growing respect for the documentary work of photographers such as Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange and felt the need to document the reality in his own city. By 1949 he was wandering through Redfern in Sydney’s inner west with a speed graphic camera borrowed from Dupain.

He was approached by a woman who thought that he worked for one of the newspapers. “Photograph this and publish it in your paper,” she said as she led him to a terrace, dark and typical of the suburb. Moore photographed the grim scene in a bedroom that he said “epitomised the plight of many slum dwellers in Sydney - cracked and stained walls, a double bed and a rudimentary baby’s cradle with a ragged canvass base”.

After processing the film Moore was overcome with guilt for invading their lives under false pretences and he even considered destroying the negatives. Some years later this now iconic photograph of life in a Sydney slum was included in Edward Steichens exhibition Family of Man.

At 23, Moore turned down the offer of a junior partnership with Dupain and headed to London to further his photography. He shared accommodation with his friend from Russell Roberts studio David Potts and both men found regular work with Life and The Observer.

Working with some of the finest photographers in the world, Moore’s work went from strength to strength and as his confidence grew he began to experiment and expand his photographic abilities.

During a commission for The Observer magazine to photograph the Derby at Epsom, Moore decided to react against the typical sports photograph of capturing the moment of peak action and used a very slow shutter speed, an eighth of a second, to produce an impressionistic work.

“They loved it, and ran it over four columns. They were a tiny slice of time trapped in the emulsion of a film.” Moore called his reaction against the decisive moment “the soft spread of time.”

During an assignment for The Observer in 1956 to photograph the world’s busiest airport, Moore took the photograph that he is best remembered for. "I went to Washington National Airport in the US and immediately spied 20 nuns in these gorgeous wimple headdresses, all gathered together. I could see there was a picture but how to take it? Fortunately, above me was a wonderful mezzanine level from where I would look down on them. I shot seven pictures and ... three of the frames were double exposed from a previous take! Luckily four frames were clear, including the best image, where the [nun's] hands are in the foreground. They give the picture humanity."

After seven very successful years freelancing in London, Moore returned to Australia with his wife Jenny in 1957. He brought his world-class standards of photojournalism with him. Moore opened his studio at North Sydney with designers Gordon Andrews and Harry Williamson. The collaboration lasted 15 years. In 1974 Moore was instrumental in helping to establish the Australian Centre for Photography in Paddington.

David Moore produced an incredible body of work over 60 years. His superior technical approach, gifted compositional abilities, inventiveness, drive and a powerful belief in the importance of photography have left an invaluable archive of over 200,000 negatives.

As Robert McFarlane noted in his February 2003 obituary for Moore in the Sydney Morning Herald: “When David Moore died from cancer at the age of 75 on January 23, an era in Australian photography ended. If modernist photography emerged from the pictorialist brilliance of Harold Cazneaux and continued through the inventive visions of Max Dupain and Olive Cotton, then Moore's passing signals an end to the first era of truly modern documentary photography in this country. Australia has not only lost an eminent, prolific photojournalist but a force for change within photography itself.”

Moore’s work continues to inspire and beguile both young and old photographers, especially this old one. I believe his photograph of Holt and LBJ at Fairbairn Airport in 1966 is simply the best Australian political picture ever taken.

Michael Bowers is photographer-at-large for Guardian Australia and host of Talking Pictures on ABC TV’s Insiders program.


Self Portrait, Corio, Victoria – 1942. Courtesy of David Moore Photography


Sisters of Charity, Washington D.C. – 1956. Courtesy of David Moore Photography


Sydney Harbour from 16,000 feet – 1966. Courtesy of David Moore Photography


Coronation crowd, Trafalgar Square, London – 1953. Courtesy of David Moore Photography


Migrants arriving in Sydney – 1966. Courtesy of David Moore Photography


Redfern interior – 1949. Courtesy of David Moore Photography


Horse Race, Epsom, UK – c.1953. Courtesy of David Moore Photography


President Johnson and Prime Minister Holt at Canberra Airport – 1966. Courtesy of David Moore Photography




Further reading


David Moore Photography website, designed by Lisa Moore


'The Spread of Time: The Photography of David Moore', National Gallery of Australia


All quotations from David Moore are used with the kind permission of writer and photographer Robert McFarlane.