The Face of Australia

The Face of Australia’, lecture at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, with accompanying exhibition floor talk, January 16, 2008.


August Sander wanted to produce an atlas of the German people based on social typologies. The ability to interpret facial physiognomy was crucial to his project, and his landmark book of 1929 Face of the Time explicitly linked the human face to national and historical destiny. Can similar ideas be detected within Australian photography? Although nobody embarked on a project as extensively or methodically as Sander, an incipient desire to photograph ‘the face of Australia’ can be detected in the work of many of our most famous photographers. (We can all readily conjure such a face in our mind’s eye — the weathered skin, the stubbly chin, the tousled hair, the craggy profile, the thousand-mile stare.)

Although such an idea has recently been made even more fraught by debates around multiculturalism, the idea is still implicit in our popular culture. For instance would this famous photograph of a Cronulla rioter be as effective semiotically if the head and face of the boy who is wearing the flag like a cape wasn’t of such a fresh-faced anglo type, if for instance he had dark curly hair, sallow skin and glasses?

Using Sander’s extraordinary project as a model I will try to trace the ‘face of Australia’ through Australian photography in the full knowledge that my attempt, like Sander’s is doomed to ultimately fail. Because I will be taking Face of Time and his unpublished monumental opus Citizens of the Twentieth Century as my models, I will confine my survey to picture books published about Australia from 1930 to the present. I will only be looking at photographs as they were selected and laid out by picture editors at the time, rather than as they have been subsequently excavated from photographer’s archives by today’s curators and dealers.


For my understanding of Sander I am relying on the Getty’s fabulous book August Sander in Focus. The ideas of physiognomy — that a person’s innate character manifests itself and is legible in their features — consistently run through Sander’s commentary on his own photographs, and dominated the critical reception of Face of the Time in 1929. Physiognomy had a long history that had received considerable scientific attention in the nineteenth century from Charles Darwin and other biologists. Social ethnologists also used it as a key principal to describe and document both European ethnic minorities as well as indigenous peoples in the European colonies. It was of broad popular interest in Sander’s time.

Of course genetic science has long since disapproved that there is any biological basis to the idea to physiognomics. And as the twentieth century progressed the thoroughly bogus physiognomic science was about to receive heaps of even more bad press, particularly on the left, through its association with eugenics and racism. Nonetheless, it remains a compelling undercurrent throughout the twentieth century.

Sander seems to have used the ideas in a loose and contradictory way, for him the face showed individual social experience which was layered on top of inherited traits that belong to pre-given ‘types’. In a radio lecture in 1931 he said:

every person’s story is written plainly on their face, though not everyone can read it. These are the runes of a new, but also ancient language. … More than anything physiognomy means an understanding of human nature. We know that people are formed by light and air, their inherited traits, and their actions, and we recognize people and distinguish one from the other by their appearance. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled, for life unavoidably leaves its trace there. … Each group carry in their physiognomy the expression of their times and the mental attitude of their group. Individuals who display these qualities in a particularly obvious manner can be called types.

Sander grounded his monumental physiognomic schema, which he intended to call Citizens of the Twentieth Century, in the peasantry from around his birthplace in Westerwald. In the 1910s many of these peasants had commissioned him to take their individual and family portraits. In preparing the sixty portraits in Face of the Time Sander returned to the portraits he had been commissioned to make earlier and re-used them within his grand typology. He re-cropped them more tightly to create a standardised, ‘anthropological’ format. The cropping emphasised the shape of the head, the arrangement of the features, the outline of the profile, and the set of the expression. This allowed physiognomic markers such as ears, noses, lips and brows to be read and compared and ‘types’ identified. As the introduction to Face of the Time stated:

Just as there is a comparative anatomy which enables one to understand the nature and history of organs, so here the photographer has produced a comparative photography, thereby gaining a scientific standpoint which places him beyond the photographer of detail.

In the 1930s he continued to work on the monumental Citizens of the Twentieth Century which was to contain 500 photographs in seven sections totally 45 portfolios. He planned to preface the work with a ‘portfolio of archetypes’ or a ‘generative folio’ made from the cropped details out of the photographs the Westerwald peasants had been commissioned he take. In 1954 he wrote that he classified all the types he encountered in relation to this basic, generative, type who, by virtue of their strong connection with nature had all the characteristics of mankind in general. These peasants were the physiognomic baseline against which all other social classes and professions would be measured. Sander planned to arrange the portraits in Citizens of the Twentieth Century in a circular system. Beginning with the earthbound farmer the photographs would ascend through all the social classes and professions to ‘the representatives of the highest civilization’ before descending through the unemployed and the vagrant to the ‘idiots, the sick … and the dying’. This arrangement reflected his belief that civilizations develop in circular patterns, an idea popularised by the historian Oswald Spengler in his two volume Decline of the West (1918-22). According to Spengler, who was avidly read by Sander, all great cultures are rooted in the country, gradually evolving to sophisticated urban markets before collapsing in the soulless bureaucracies of rhe city. Accordingly, Sander entitled the final section of his photographic inventory, containing the mentally ill, the physically disabled and the dead, ‘The Last People’. However in contradiction to this idea of a civilization in inevitable decline, Sander also saw all of the occupations he photographed as arranged into a fixed hierarchy, a kind of  ‘estate’ or ‘guild’ system.

Sander’s own brilliant photography undermined his classificatory project. For instance his photographs of bohemia provided vivid proof that social identities in Weimar Germany were far more complex and fluid than any typology could contain. They began to undermine his classificatory system, by resisting precisely the certainties that his ‘types’ were supposed to provide, namely that people could be documented, classified, and thus understood. Sander’s project recognised that physiognomy was mobile.


So there’s a magnificently fraught, dangerously ambitious, massively contradictory model as our guide. Let’s now turn to Australia.

A photographer who was imbued with many of the same interests in physiognomy as Sander, and who came form a similar cultural background, came to Australia in 1930 in order to shoot a travel book about Australia aimed at the English and German markets. He was E. O. Hoppe, and his time in Australia has recently been researched by Erika Essau.

Born in Germany Hoppe emigrated to England in 1900 at the age of 22, and by the 1910s had become a famous society photographer. He kept up a strong connection to German culture and also became interested in physiognomic typologies. In his autobigraphy he wrote:

I became interested in the psychology of the by-products and offshoots of the social order and spent much time looking for and photographing character types.

He contributed  character studies of the lower strata of society to the sociological book Taken from Life, 1922 by J. D. Beresford, and in 1926 published a book called London Types. He produced luxury travel books on England in 1926 and the Unites States in 1927  and came to Australia for ten months in 1930 on commission from a German publisher. The resultant book, The Fifth Continent, came out in German and English in 1931.

Hoppe shot many Australian types during his 10 months here, focussing in on their heads in a physiognomic manner. However the German Picture editor saw  it as primarily a travel book and concentrated on scenery, as well as having a concluding section on Aboriginal culture. However five ‘types’ did made it into the book: The Man From Outback, Mine Host at Eden, NSW; a 90 year Young Fruit Grower; Old Miner, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia; Young  Axeman, Pemberton, WA. In accordance with Spengler’s circular historical schema of civilizations rising from the agrarian and declining into the metropolis, the types from the young country of Australia reproduced in The Fifth Continent are all connected to the land. In the introduction Hoppe wrote:

The character of the Australian is a surely moulded as much by the sun as by his Northern ancestry. In a land of almost perpetual sunshine he is inclined to invest his life with a roseate hue and push troubles aside in a gay impersonal way which is the prerogative of abiding youth. Although he may not be strongly addicted to the discipline of long hours at routine work, he has none of the indolence of the languid East.

Hoppe sees the Australian character as being formed by the impact of a new landscape on a predetermining racial substrate.


The subsequent history of photographic Australiana is fascinating, though largely unwritten. For instance from the 1930s to the 1970s the editor and publisher Oswald Ziegler produced lavish publications such as This is Australia, 1946 or Australia from the Dawn of Time to the Present Day, 1964[i]. These massive picture books were often sponsored by various governments, and compiled from photographs supplied by their publicity departments. The photographs were cut and collaged together, by European-trained designers like Gert Sellheim or Douglas Annand, into modernist graphic friezes that leapt across each double-page spread. It is hard to know now who were the intended audience for these books. Like all government publicity they were probably largely unwanted by those who were forced to gratefully receive them, either as official gifts, or patriotic presents from well-meaning relatives.

In Ziegler’s books people were mere actors in national scenarios of industrial and agrarian development, and the photographers themselves mostly anonymous. The sequence of chapters told a story of European development which was briefly prefaced with a chapter on Aborigines and the geology of the continent itself which were seen to be inertly waiting for the colonists to arrive. They then rapidly followed in a sequence with industrial and pastoral development, ending with modern city, sport and culture. There is little or no interest in physiognomy or typology. In these books the Australian character doesn’t reside in the people themselves who are still regarded as being innately nothing more than another variety of British citizen. Rather, national personality and character is generated by the landscape and the climate. Accordingly, the nationalistic panoramas in which Australians themselves do predominantly feature are those panoramas to do with aspects of the country that had already been established as ‘character forming’, those to do with the outback, or the beach, or sport, or, most significantly, war.


The explorer photographer Frank Hurley firmly attached the imprimatur of his name to his enormously successful series of Camera Study books, which ended up selling 168,500 copies by the time of his death 1962. In the 1950s Hurley was a household name because of his expeditions to Antarctica, New Guinea and both world wars. To market the books he leveraged his youthful explorer’s reputation for journeying into the unknown into the returned man’s patriotic touring of each state and territory of the commonwealth. But in Hurley’s books Australia is still the star, not Australians. People are the spear-carrying extras, the scale markers placed in the picture in order to be dwarfed by the grand proscenium arches of cliffs, valleys, buildings and factories.


An interest in Australian character types hadn’t entirely disappeared from Australian photographic publishing, however. In the 1930s the visual image of the ANZAC soldier began to take predominate in Australian visual culture as memorials were built in every town. In 1937 Charles bean capped of his monumental twelve volume official history of the Great War with a volume devoted entirely to official photographs. It was the biggest selling volume of the series, and featured photographs of typical diggers, dressed in informal workman like uniforms, or stripped to the waist and engaged in strenuous work. These images were meant to be photographic proof that the heroic, knockabout digger Bean had describe din his histories actually did exist.


An interest in typological character portraits persisted in the real of commercial and pictorial photography as well. In 1947 Ziegler published an annual of photography drawn from 700 submissions from amateur and professional photographers, and selected by himself, Hal Missingham, Max Dupain, Athol Shmith and Russell Roberts. The gold plaque was awarded to Axel Poignant’s, Mary (Since re-titled Aboriginal Mother and New Born Baby) and his Head Stockman was also reproduced. Both were shot in 1942 on the Canning stock route where he had documented other Australian types. A digger type from George Silk, Man of Crete, was also reproduced in the annual. As was a typological character study by Olga Sharpe.

THE 1960’S

Ziegeler and Hurley’s panoramic style of Australian picture book, which had dominated the market for twenty years, changed dramatically in the mid 1960s. Many factors came together at this point. There was a burgeoning of overseas interest in Australia because of our involvement in the Vietnam War, and the use of Sydney as an R & R base by American servicemen. There was also a massive increase in the publishing industry because Australian publishers could use Asian presses for cheaper printing, and aggressive overseas publishers like Paul Hamlyn entered the market aiming books at a popular supermarket audience. An explosion of interest in all things Australian —Australian history, Australian wildlife, Australian touring holidays (think Bill Peach and the Leyland Brothers) — combined with the effects of postwar immigration, the baby boom, the increase in wealth, and the shift in our allegiance from Britain to America, to put questions of national identity and national character on the popular agenda. Examples of this popular discussion were the publication of Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country in 1964, the massive popularity of Michael Powell’s film They’re a Weird Mob in 1966.

Some of the new, overseas printed, picture books, such as Rigby’s 1966 book Around Australia on Highway One, simply updated the old panoramic formats of Ziegler and Hurley. And in 1964 David Moore shot widely for an assignment on Australia and New Zealand for the LIFE World Library.


But the watershed book came in 1966. Called, significantly, The Australians, it was the first true coffee table book in the Australiana genre. A ruminative, fifty-thousand word text by the novelist and journalist George Johnston supported an extended photographic essay shot over two years by the American National Geographic photographer Robert Goodman. Their stated objective was,

[T]he fair and unpropagandised presentation of the Australian in his unique and many-faceted setting. The essential image, if you like, of a race apart from the others.’[ii]

It had a budget of $200,000, fronted up by twelve of Australia’s biggest companies such as BHP and QANTAS, and ended up printing ninety thousand copies, which sold in the shops at the upmarket retail price of $8.95.[iii]

The book’s chapters followed a similar trajectory to Ziegler’s, from the ‘land’, to the ‘land’s people’ (meaning white settlers, more than Aborigines) through to ‘the economy’, ‘science’, ‘the arts’, ‘sport’, and culminating in ‘Anzac’. But its photographs home in on the faces of Australians, who look out from the pages in frank close-up. Their faces are enlarged right up into full-page or double-page spreads, often bleeding to the edge in the contemporary style of picture-magazine layouts. The cast of characters was cosmopolitan. There was the familiar dusty-but-lithe stockman, the craggy farmer, and the sweaty worker, but also the winsome office girl, and the intense artist.

The centrality of art and artists to popular accounts of Australian identity in the sixties might come as something of a surprise to those of us who have got in to the lazy historical habit of identifying the beginning of the renaissance of post-war Australian culture with the signal ‘It’s Time’ campaign in 1972, prior to which everything cultural was cringing. In The Australians, Johnston confidently asserted that there were already:

… more good painters in Australia than there were good jockeys’. ‘Australians’, he claimed, perhaps a tad over-optimistically, ‘who like to think of themselves as easy-going people, rough and ready, physical rather than cerebral, who are deeply suspicious of the longhair and the intellectual, also pay the greatest respect, homage and even, of late, cash, to their artists. There is no country in the world, not even in Scandinavia, where the easel painter of even reasonable competence can survive as comfortably as in Australia.[iv]

A few pages on, spread across both pages in full and virulent colour, Russel and Maisie Drysdale lean toward the camera. One of Drysdale’s desert-red canvases is behind them and, because of the book’s advanced six-plate colour printing, their blue eyes seem to pop out from behind their extravagantly rimmed glasses as they warmly smile at us. There’s a cigarette jammed between Drysdale’s fingers and a can of Resch’s slammed on the table beside the crumple of Masie’s hankie, house keys, cigarettes and matches.

The most powerful spread in Goodman’s book is a chiaroscuro tableau of anxious faces called ‘Immigrant arrivals, Sydney Harbour’. These shipboard faces don’t engage the reader’s gaze, as Russell and Maisie Drysdale do, but search the unknown space of the dock beyond the reader. (A very similar, and now much more famous, copycat photograph was taken in the same place the following year by the Australian photographer David Moore, whilst on assignment for the National Geographic article ‘New South Wales: The State that Cradled Australia’.[v] )


Other books followed Goodman’s lead. In 1967 Donald Horne collaborated with the photojournalist David Beal on a book called Southern Exposure, which in its acerbic treatment of Australia was almost like a pictorial version of The Lucky Country. Horne wrote in the book’s introduction:

Neither of us — photographer nor writer — could be bothered producing the ordinary kind of picture book on Australia. There are no photographs of koala bears in gum trees here. We are trying to get down in pictures and words the Australia we see — a nation in which more people live in big cities than happens in any other nation, but which is set in a largely empty continent, a continent which seems very strange to non-Australians. In this nation people lead a life not quite the same as the life led anywhere else, but they are so indifferent to it that they hardly care what kind of life it is that they lead. … We have a special theme — to suggest some answers to the following question: What happened to European civilization when it came to Australia?

The chapter headings don’t follow the usual triumphalist trajectories of most over picture books, but capture the text’s acerbic tone: ‘A transported Civilization’; ‘Deserts of Disaster’; ‘The Same but Different’; ‘Boxes of Brick’; ‘Mates’; ‘Non-Mates’; ‘Bosses’; ‘The New Australia’; ‘Existential Australia’.


In the following year Jeff Carter’s Outback in Focus a travel book aimed at the rising market of tourists and campers was nonetheless not shy in commenting on Australian civilization in general. In the book physiognomic close-ups are arranged across the pages for comparison. The dryly cynical captions to some of his sequences include:

This Wailbri Tribesman is amongst the last generations of Aborigines still capable of a nomadic life;

This man could still live in the bush, too, but looks to the ways of the white man for a better life

This Alice Springs policeman works as a white man, but is not paid as a white man or treated like one.


Occasionally younger photographers attempted to modify the mould that had now been well established for picture books about Australia. For instance in 1971 Rennie Ellis and Wes Stacey self published a small 81-page book about the effect of the R & R day on Kings Cross called Kings Cross Sydney. This book takes a deliberately cosmopolitan, bohemian approach to the idea of an Australian type.


In 1969 the commercial photographer David Mist produced a kind of Playboy guide to Australia, punningly titled Made in Australia, it claimed to be:

… a book of Australia’s bird life (of the non-feathered variety).

And it saw Australian women as a multiracial cocktail.

The beauty of Australian woman is unlike that found in any other nationality, yet its unique style is a combination of the characteristics of every nation. Beginning with the elegance of the English and the tranquil dignity of the Aboriginal, we have since added Italian vivacity, Slavic warmth, German discipline, Greek joi de vivre, Asian serenity and American ingenuity — what emergesis ‘Australian’ — a look that has claimed the Miss International and Miss World titles.


Five years later a rejoinder came with the feminist A Book About Australian Women with photographs by Carol Jerrems and text edited from interviews with various women by Virginia Fraser. Fraser wrote of her interviews:

They can’t represent the whole experience of all women in Australia. There is not just one way of being a person. They are some individual experiences of being a female in this society, dominated by a culture that sees biological gender as a decisive difference between people, instead of one aspect of human possibility and individual uniqueness; in which the institutions traditions and mythology are defined and controlled by men, out of their experience and in their interests.


Despite these counter-cultural efforts even in subsequent mainstream picture books the city largely remains a dystopian place and true character still lies out in the bush. For instance on Friday March 6 in 1981 seventy top international photojournalists joined thirty Australian photographers to shoot Australia across a 24 hour period for A Day in the Life of Australia, but the pattern of coverage has not significantly changed in 20 years.

However these books did solve the problem of picturing the character of a multicultural Australia by gridding photographs up into mosiacs. However they still persisted in locating bush types as the baseline against which to contrast shifts in identity.


To my knowledge there have been no significant picture books about Australia since then. The resurgence of the film industry in the 1970s, and the continuing dominance of television, have taken over the task of visually defining and redefining what might be our national character. But our bookshops are still awash with biographies of Australian heroes and anti-heroes. But the interest in the face, captured in the frame for scrutiny, remains. In 1998 the National Portrait Gallery opened in Canberra with the vision to:

increase the understanding of the Australian people – their identity, history, creativity and culture – through portraiture.

The inaugural National Portraiture award attracted nearly 1500 entries.


Are there any remnants of a Sanderesque typology in any of this? A group, which in Sander’s words carries “in their physiognomy the expression of their times and the mental attitude of their group. Individuals who display these qualities in a particularly obvious manner can be called types.” Let’s see. In Australian Photography 1947 Laurence le Guay published a studio portrait of the film actor Chips Rafferty, craggy, unshaven, staring off into space. Rafferty made his name playing lank ANZACs in films like Forty Thousand Horseman in 1940 and the Rats of Tobruk in 1944, and a drover in the Hollywood film The Overlanders in 1946. Twenty years later Chips Rafferty played the cranky patriarch in They’re a Weird Mob who begrudgingly allowed the Italian migrant to marry his beautiful daughter.  For me Chips is an ur-type for a distinct lineage of men that travel through Paul Hogan, to Les Hiddens the Bush Tucker Man, up to Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter (Whose portrait now hangs in the NPG). What are the physiognomic characteristics of this type? I think they are:

  • A no-nonsense non-cosmopolitan haircut
  • Laugh-lines or sun-creases around the eyes
  • A weathered complexion — freckles, sunburn, etc
  • A clear-eyed, open gaze
  • A sinewy, lanky body

In essence these are the characteristics which make the face and the body a synecdoche and an analogue for the continent of Australia itself. It is a type where the weather seems to have indexically inscribed itself onto the face to turn it into its own Australian landscape. And they are also the characteristics which physically materialize the supposedly decent, frank personality of the Australian.

Significantly, even though this type obviously had its origins in some kind of Aryan racial ideal, beneath even its digger and drover manifestations, I think it has now transcended it. In the sixty years since it emerged it has now crossed ethnic, racial and even gender lines. Steve bequeathed it to Bindii. And I see the net-baller Liz Ellis as very much of the type. I’m even going to go out on a limb and include Ernie Dingo in my category.

Unfortunately I think the type is being debased. I was startled to see Jack Thompsons face being used by the Byron Bay Chilli Company on their new range of BBQ sauces. Our Jack is no Paul Newman, and there is something about the implied sexual rapacity of his unruly beard which undermines he fundamental decency of the type.

As yet I haven’t been able to think of any celebrities who represent  migrant communities, although I think somebody from the South-East Asian communities must be ready for it. For instance Ahn Do has certainly captured the larrikin aspects of the type, but he is too metropolitan and lacks the embodiment of the outdoors and the bush that is there even in the suburban girl Liz Ellis, via the netball court.


Perhaps there are other types that I could have explored, for instance the stolid, indomitable woman — the middle aged woman built on a sturdy framework of bone, and with a secure layer of subcutaneous fat. Dupain and Moore specialized in this type, though I can’t think of any current examples.


Now of course these types aren’t really types in the old nineteenth century mode at all. They now no longer grow up from the national soil, but are constructed by the national media. Yet I think that they are more than just superficial media stereotypes as well. While there is a level of self-parody in many of these figures, there is still a way in which in their very physiognomies they persist in embodying a material, physical history that goes back a century.

I think also that if we look back at the picture books about Australia we certainly find a very fragmented, interrupted, and meagre history. But nonetheless it is one that has been totally ignored until now, and it demonstrates that photography played an important role in the popular conversation around national identity well before the recent art photography boom.

Martyn Jolly

[i] Oswald Ziegler (Ed.), This is Australia, Oswald Ziegler Publications, 1946; Australia from the Dawn of Time to the Present Day, Oswald Ziegler Publications, 1964.

[ii] George Johnston and Robert Goodman, The Australians, Rigby, 1966, p292.

[iii] John Currey, ‘Australian Books Are Selling FAST!’, Walkabout, March 1970. (My thanks to Gael Newton for this reference)

[iv] p 214, p210.

[v] Howell Walker, ‘New South Wales: The State that Cradled Australia’, National Geographic, November 1967

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