Picture Story: Axel Poignant

Exhibition Opening: Picture Story: Axel Poignant, photographer, the formative years 1929-1942.

Curated by Roslyn Poignant

Talk: by Martin Thomas, on Axel Poignant’s modernism, naturalism and cross-cultural encounters

Date: Saturday 5 Feburary 2011 at 3pm

The Cross Art Projects
8 Llankelly Place Kings Cross, Sydney 2011 (off Orwell Street)


About the Speaker: Martin Thomas

Martin Thomas is a cultural historian interested in place, representations of landscape and narratives of cross-cultural encounter especially in photography and the work of early Australian anthropologists. His history, The Artificial Horizon: Imagining the Blue Mountains (Melbourne University Publishing, 2003) won the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. His background is a visual arts writer, oral historian and producer of over 15 documentaries for ABC radio. He is a Research Fellow at the Australian National University.


About the Exhibition:
Picture Story: Axel Poignant, photographer, the formative years 1929-1942

Axel Poignant (1906-1986) is one of the most influential photographers of Australia’s new documentary movement and, in over 5 decades’ work, proved himself a master of the photographic essay and documentary cinematography. This biographic exhibition surveys this Anglo-Swedish photographer’s formative years in Perth, Western Australia from July 1931 to 1943.

Roslyn Poignant, an acclaimed writer and anthropologist, has written a substantial biographic essay on Axel Poignant’s formative years. She understands this period as a drive to achieve a form of visual representation to express his growing social awareness. Her exhibition is also an account of Poignant’s artistic process and his life-long focus on the arts, experimental viewpoints and his encounter with the bush and indigenous people. This is the first of a two-part exhibition research project.

“The formative years” sets unpublished and unexhibited prints made by Axel Poignant for his commercial studio showcase and original contact prints alongside period exhibition prints, some reprinted for the artist’s first retrospective (Gael Newton, Art Gallery of NSW, 1982.)

Another theme is the sustaining friendships formed in Perth’s small but vital arts community and Axel’s passion for the natural world. This was a period of modest modernist rebellion, captured and defined by the important exhibition Aspects of Perth Modernism, 1929-1942 (Julian Goddard, UWA, 1986) which featured Poignant’s sharply-observed photo-essays.

The leading photographers and friends, Poignant and Hal Missingham, exhibited together in 1941 giving six talks in a two week exhibition period, some practical, some theoretical, on the new documentary movement.

Poignant’s renowned Canning Stock route pictures, taken in July 1942, are his last WA excursion before enlisting in the army. It was on his first journey along the Canning Stock Route that his aesthetics and skills coalesced in a singular directness of vision and a life-changing encounter. Few works from this period were published or exhibited until 1947 when two portraits—of a young Aboriginal mother and baby and a young head stockman—were awarded for their humanity of vision.

After the Second World War Axel Poignant worked first on Harry Watt’s film The Overlanders, then as cinematographer on Namatjira the Painter for the Commonwealth Film Division. His most significant work is a self-generated assignment to photograph the Yolngu community in Arnhem Land (1952). Forty years later, his wife Roslyn returned to the same area with the photographs and published Encounter at Nagalarramba (National Library of Australia, 1996).

For Roslyn Poignant’s catalogue essay, plus images from the exhibition, see here.


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