Harold Cazneaux

1878 - 1953    |    New South Wales    |    Photographer

The New Zealand-born Cazneaux was the most important influence on early Australian photographic history. He refused to slavishly follow the British style of low-toned pictures and introduced the “Sunshine School” embracing Australian light and colour. Cazneaux also led the pictorialist movement in Australia, pushing for photography to be recognised as an art form, like painting, rather than a production process. He used soft focus, atmospheric effects and blended images from different negatives. Cazneaux recorded some of the most famous images of the first half of the 20th century.

He has influenced generations of photographers and brought to the attention of the world the artistry and professionalism of Australian photography, as well as leaving an invaluable legacy in his documentation of life.

Kathleen Whelan, photographer and author 


Harold Cazneaux


Harold Cazneaux was a true pioneer in photography who has left an enduring and exquisite record of the life and land of Australia past.

From his early ‘Pictorial’ images of the old Sydney that he knew was rapidly disappearing, to the beautifully crafted ‘New Modern’ images of the 1930s, Harold Cazneaux has left us with a wealth of pictorial history and art.

He, like great photojournalists, ‘created’ an image – he didn’t just ‘take’ a photo.

Harold was an ardent thinker, teacher, and activist, publishing many articles on the aesthetic possibilities of Pictorialism and its development in Australia as well as forming very influential camera clubs (the Sydney Camera Circle and the South Australian Photographic Society) with his ground-breaking contemporaries.

His advice to young photographers was: “Place all of your effort not in mere technique, but more so in the perfection of the art of selection and creative ideas in subject matter.”

In 1907 he exhibited carbon prints at the Photographic Society of NSW and in 1909 was given Australia’s first solo photographic exhibition to wide acclaim.

He was a devoted family man from being inspired by his father, Pierce Mott Cazneaux, who had a photographic studio in New Zealand where his mother, Emma (née Bentley) was described as an expert colourist and a painter of miniature portraits.

In 1887 the family moved back to Sydney, returning to Freeman Brothers – one of the oldest and most respected photographic studios in Australia.  They then went to Adelaide to work for William H. Hammer and Co., where Harold began as an artist-retoucher at 18.

At night he studied art at the Adelaide School of Design under Henry Pelham Gill.  He stated that the study of art was necessary: “You needed to add the human element – creativity, imagination – producing the real picture of artistic value”.

Harold was inspired by John Kaufmann, who was a pioneer in the Pictorialism movement (sometimes called Photo Impressionism) after studying photography for 10 years in England and Europe.

The family returned to Sydney, where in 1904 Cazneaux’s photo ‘Fishing off the Rocks’ won a cash prize. He used the money to purchase a Midg box quarter-plate camera.  He now could hand-hold the camera and took many photos on the way to and from work.  He took photos of Sydney Harbour, creating ‘The Ferry Album’ in 1906.

From all accounts, Harold was a sensitive, loving man who was happiest at home with his family – five daughters, one son and his devoted, creative wife, Mabel Winifred Hodge, who was his confidant and ardent photographic critic. They married in in 1905.  Some of his most enduring Pictorial images used the family as subjects. ‘The Quest’, with his daughter Rainbow, illustrates the Pictorialism philosophy beautifully with its mystery and ambiguity leaving the viewer to imagine the story.  What is the quest?  Is it more peaches?  Is it taking the treasured doll somewhere in the garden or are they chasing a sibling?  The angle of the body and head with her intense gaze portrays action and anticipation.

Another strong image with exquisite tones and textures of Rainbow entitled ‘Rainy Day’ uses the Pictorialist methods of altering the image to get the desired narrative, atmosphere and creative effect.  He often used the very difficult Bromoil techniques of applying paints, bleaches and oils.  Here he has ‘drawn’ in the rain with pencil on the negative.

In 1917 Cazneaux left Freeman’s studio fed up with the artificial portraits that he was taking.  They set up home in Roseville NSW, where he flourished, with his family as assistants, until the end of his life. The studio at the side of the house was where clients came for appointments, often using the beautiful garden that he designed himself as the setting.

Cazneaux celebrated the unique qualities of the Australian light.  He said that he wanted to “show our lands in the sunny tone and mood it deserved.”  European and English light was “low toned with dismal shadows”. This sentiment was shared by contemporary painters such as Hans Heysen and had a strong influence on Max Dupain.

A striking image of Margaret Vyner and her stunning dress illustrates Cazneaux’s venture into the ‘Modernist’ movement in photography. The 1931 title ‘A Study in Profile’ is more about the light and the geometric shapes on the hanging backdrop using original Australian design.

At this stage Harold’s superb photography was shared with a wider Australian audience when he was appointed the principal photographer for Home magazine and Art in Australia by owner Sydney Ure Smith.

In 1934 he photographed a girl’s boarding school at Mittagong, NSW and created his “most personal” book, The Frensham Book.  He also received a major commission from BHP which was a tribute to humans and industry.

Some of Cazneaux’s most considered and thoughtful works were made in the ‘30s and ‘40s, when he used all of his superb artistic and technical skills to document beautiful landscapes around New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria, when he went on family excursions in his cherished Buick.

Max Dupain described this work as having “a poetic silence and a romantic purity”. Cazneaux wrote: “The photographer must be in accordance with all nature’s moods, he must feel the very spirit of the scene if he is to be successful”.

Harold Cazneaux was awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain in 1938.  He has influenced generations of photographers and brought to the attention of the world the artistry and professionalism of Australian photography, as well as leaving an invaluable legacy in his documentation of life.

Kathleen Whelan is an educator, author, artist and photographer who has lectured in photography and theory for more than 30 years. She has exhibited her work in many exhibitions and contributed to many newspapers, professional and craft journals.  Her most recent book was Photography of The Age.



Further reading


‘Cazneaux, Harold Pierce (1878–1953)’, Lesley G. Lynch, Australian Dictionary of Biography, MUP, Melbourne, 1979.


Harold Cazneaux: The Quiet Observer, Helen Ennis & Phillip Adams, National Library of Australia, 1994.


‘2nd Sight: Australian photography in the National Gallery of Victoria, Isobel Crombie and Susan van Wyk, National Gallery of Victoria, 2002.


Intersections, Helen Ennis, National Gallery of Australia, 2004.


 ‘Silver and Grey’ Fifty Years of Australian Photography 1900-1950, Gael Newton, Angus & Robinson, 1980.