‘Peace after war and memories’, catalogue essay in Harold Cazneaux: Artist in Photography, 2008, edited by Natasha Bulluck, Art Gallery of New South Wales. PP136-137 ISBN 978-1-74174-022-6
Cazneaux was a photographer of taste and restraint. His reputation was built on understated images with elegant compositions and carefully modulated lighting effects. Which is not to say that he didn’t tackle big topics, his central theme was the process of historical change itself, the gentle overlapping of one epoch with the next. However, a few images stand out as intriguingly different in Cazneaux’s work. One example is Peace After War and Memories, 1918, exhibited at the London Salon of 1920. Unlike most of Cazneaux’s pictorialist work it is not a generalised view of this or that backstreet of Sydney, or this or that picturesque by-way in the countryside. Its title and date refer to a specific historical event, the end of the Great War. The main figure is presumably a soldier settler, one of the thousands who were given small blocks to farm as a form of repatriation, and in order to build up the Australian nation by forging the returning diggers into a class of agrarian yeomanry. (Although, even in 1918 as a severe drought began to bite, it was becoming clear that the utopian dream of the soldier settler schemes was destined for failure.) The horse-drawn plough of the farm is a familiar enough Cazneaux trope — an anachronistic technology teetering on the edge of nostalgia — but it is the dusty smoky paddock it ploughs that is the most arresting. It is a strange, uncanny landscape, a doubled landscape, at once an image of a precarious attempt to make the harsh Australian land productive and a visual echo of the blasted landscape of the Front returning. The bare trees in the background would have reminded contemporary viewers of the skeletal trees of the Somme, stripped of their leaves by bomb blasts; and the drifting smoke from the burn-off would have reminded them of the newspaper pictures they had seen of the bombs themselves. The dispersing clouds are also a familiar pictorialist convention, but the shafts of light beneath which the soldier/farmer bows his head now seem to directly offer divine benediction to his reverie. Cazneaux has clearly felt compelled to lard all of these extra symbols into his image in order to express his personal reaction to the historical cataclysm that was the most epoch changing event of his time. Although he was a sentimentalist, this mannered symbolism was new terrain for him. However similar images were occurring regularly in lower-brow culture, and Cazneaux drew on this visual vocabulary for his own salon image. For instance in 1915 Melbourne’s Weekly Times Annual printed a montage of a digger on guard duty in a bare battle field, leaning over his rifle and dreaming, in a photographic thought bubble, of his mother waiting for him back home. And in 1919 Frank Hurley was to exhibit The Dawn of Passchendaele at Sydney’s Kodak Salon, in which he montaged a holy-card sky above a terrible battle scene. By the 1920s Cazneaux was back to making sleek images for classy magazines like The Home. It wasn’t until World War Two, when he rechristened his 1937 photograph of an ancient gum tree tenaciously clinging to a dry creek bed The Spirit of Endurance, that he made another of his images resonate in a similar way. That nationalist allegory was more enduring and remains popular to this day.
Weekly Times Annual, Melbourne 4 November 1915, The Mothers Daydream, The Son’s Lonely Vigil, pp12-13