EDWARD CRANSTONE, PHOTOGRAPHER
Recently the Australian National Gallery benefited from a gift by the photographer Edward Cranstone of seven spiral bound albums containing approximately 350 of his photographs from the Depression and Second World War years.
The albums contain three main groups of work: freelance photography from the late 1930s; photographs taken for the Department of Information between 1939 and 1941; and documentation of the work of the Allied Works Council in building strategic roads, aerodromes, etc. in Australia’s interior between 1942 and 1944.
The Second World War saw a flowering of documentary photography in Australia, with photographers like Max Dupain, Frank Hurley, Damien Parer, George Silk, Laurie Le Guay and Edward Cranstone all extensively documenting various aspect of the War. Little of this material has yet been seen in its entirety, and none of it has received the attention in deserves. In the case of Edward Cranstone a body of excellent photography and a fascinating document from war-time Australia’s visual culture is only now coming to light.
Born in 1903, Cranstone took up photography seriously at the onset of the Depression to supplement his income as a jazz drummer.’ Around 1935. to learn more about photographic technique, he approached the famous pioneering Melbourne Pictorialist John Kauffmann, who at the time, perhaps himself in straitened circumstances, was offering lessons. These lessons came for a fee Cranstone could not possibly afford, however a compromise was soon reached whereby Cranstone worked unpaid in Kauffmann’s studio, and Kauffmann taught Cranstone photography. The relationship suited both parties: Kauffmann was still primarily involved in making art photographs, mainly close-up flower studies and views of picturesque Melbourne. The relationship, which lasted a year, is remembered as a very profitable one by Cranstone. Kauffmann lectured him about composition and lighting, took him to exhibitions, lent him books and showed him Pictorialist techniques.
Cranstone was soon freelancing, concentrating on portraiture. When Kauffmann retired in 1938, he sold his studio to one of his pay ing pupils who took Cranstone on as an assistant at a pound a week. Thereupon Cranstone’s work appeared under the studio owner’s name in a rented showcase in Collins Street, where Melbourne’s most prestigious photographic studios were located. At this time Cranstone also began a long association with Edna Walling, the avant-garde landscape gardener well known for her informal, naturally Australian gardens which Cranstone was to photograph for the rest of her career.
Later, towards the end of the war, Cranstone was to join the social circle that gathered around Danila Vassilieff, the flamboyant Russian painter who was a significant influence and inspiration to the expressionistic and politically left wing Melbourne painters of the 1940s. Cranstone’s closest photographic confederates at this time were Geoffrey Powell, Axel Poignant and Damien Parer. Although all were documentary photographers, approached their photography from significantly different directions. Powell, politically active on the Left, produced his photography within a particular political and social ideology. Poignant, on the other hand, developed a humanistic and pantheistic basis to his imagery. Damien Parer, who Cranstone first met at Kauffmann’s studio, photographed and filmed within ideas of clear, unencumbered reportage.
The polyphony of voices that Cranstone listened to and appreciated at this time reflected the unresolved and dissonant nature of the photographic discourse of the 1930s and ’40s. Pictorialism, which located photography within a traditional art discourse, was still a vital force; however it was increasingly being opposed by Modernist photography, the spare, reduced, flattened forms of which became the parlance for the fashion and magazine industries both overseas and in Australia during the 1930s. The possibilities of a revitalized documentary photography, actively engaging in the world, were also being discussed at this time. Examples reached Australia mainly through such magazines as Life and Picture Post, for which photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Bill Brandt worked.
Cranstone’s own photography from the ’30s echoes this commotion. His photographs range from extreme close-ups of Rolex watches to views of pastoral Australia elegantly seen through framing gum trees. Bird’s-eye views of bathers at the beach and documentary snapshots of life on Melbourne’s busy streets also feature. His most successful photographs from this period, however, are portraits. Waiting for the skipper, for instance, is a sophisticated Modernist image, being broken into strong verticals and horizontals by the yacht’s mast and the horizon line. As is characteristic of many of Cranstone’s images, the space behind the figures is flattened into a single planar backdrop which emphasises the primary forms of the figures and mast.
In 1937, Cranstone joined the Department of Commerce, which with the beginning of the Second World War in 1939 became the Department of Information. As head photographer, Cranstone recruited two other photographers to cover the War overseas, Damien Parer, who later became well known for his newsreel coverage of the War in New Guinea, and George Silk, who went on to photograph for Life magazine. Frank Hurley later took charge of these photographers in the Middle East.
For the first two years of the War, Cranstone photographed in Australia, documenting the manufacture of munitions and Australia’s own ill-fated warplane, the Wirraway, as well as military training and embarkations. These two years saw the rapid development of Cranstone’s photography into very precisely evocative images of strength and heroism constructed around strong diagonal compositons and severe upward looking camera angles. For instance, in one image a Wirraway sits on a tarmac silhouetted against a backdrop of brooding storm clouds, its body and wing thrusting up and out of the photograph. In Making of an Anzac. originally taken for, but never published in, American Vogue, all the signs of ‘Australianness’ are present: the jaunty stance, the cocky look, the casually held cigarette, the gum-tree and the far horizon. But the extreme camera angle pushes the horizon line down so that the soldier almost floats above it against a clear sky; similarly, the gum tree becomes a dislocated compositional element. This exaggerated viewpoint draws attention to the ‘gaze’ of the camera and gives an almost iconic force to the figure of the soldier, making him signify “Australian soldiery”.
Two of the best images from this period similarly give the figure iconic status. Both employ an upward looking camera, flattened space, and a backdrop of clear sky. In Naval training, (semaphore) elements of the ship frame the figures, and in their upward movement complement their actions. In Naval training, (foursailors) the figures casually disport themselves across the image, all emphasis is placed on their clear, angelic expressions as they gaze into space, connoting youth, strength and purity. In Munitions manufacture gleaming bomb shells are photographed so that as they are stacked in a spatially receding row they simultaneously fill the picture plane in an aggressive diagonal movement. All of Cranstone’s photography from this period has remarkable internal consistency; and is also consistent with much other imagery that had been produced in Europe, particularly Germany and the Soviet Union, during the 1920s and 30s.
The deployment of this particular, explicit form of ‘photographic seeing’ that characterises Cranstone’s imagery had been an issue in Europe for thirty years. The story of its development, progress, and various permutations is an extremely complex one. Briefly, its origins can be traced to the ideas of ‘ostranenie’, or ‘making strange’, developed by the pre-revolutionary Russian Futurists, which were subsequently taken up in the Soviet Union by such photographers as Alexander Rodchenko. These ideas also found voice in Germany, (with photographers like Laszlo Moholy-Nagy), where through the Bauhaus and New Objectiviey movements they eventually merged with the general Modernist canon, which by the 1930s had become thoroughly integrated into the cultural hegemony of the West.
Originally, this radical formalism was seen as being inherently revolutionary, in fact an optical analogue of political revolution. However, this form of ‘photographic seeing’ began to come under attack in Europe in the 1920s and ’30s. The Russian Society for Proletarian Photojournalism and the German Worker Photographer movement accused it of being merely bourgeois formalism inaccessible to workers. However, some of its elements can still be found in the official propaganda imagery of both Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany right up to the Second World War. These elements, (most notably the upward-looking camera angle, strong rising forms, and clear, direct lighting), became part of the rhetoric of the heroisation and iconisation of the worker, soldier and machine. At this particular historical instant, revolutionary formalism permutated into nationalistic formalism.
Cranstone’s specific access to this imagery is difficult to determine. Some sources, however, are clear. Throughout the War, Cranstone saw and was very impressed by the films of the Soviet Revolutionary director, Sergei Eisenstein, which were shown in Melbourne by the Australia-Soviet Friendship League, an organization of the Communist Party of Australia. He was particularly impressed by such films as “Ten days that shook the world” and “Battleship Potemkin “. He may also have had access to official Soviet propaganda imagery, some of which was published in The Tribune during 1-9-39 and 1940, and which bears a close resemblance to his own work. From 1944, Cranstone himself contributed photographs to the Tribune. In any case his imagery has much in common, both conceptually and structurally, with the most sophisticated European propaganda photography of the 1920s and ’30s.
Early in 1942, Cranstone was transferred to the position of official photographer for the public relations department of the Allied Works Council (A.W.C.). The A.W.C. was formed as a result of General Macarthur’s discussions with Australia’s Prime Minister John Curtin, held in an effort to expand Australia’s till then somewhat tardy war effort.’ The A.W.C. was modelled on the Soviet Stakhanovites, the Nazi Todt Organization and the U.S. Civil Construction Corps. Under the leadership of the retired politician E.G. Theodore it called up men from the ages of 35 to 55. usually excluded from military service, to form the Australian Civil Construction Corps (C.C.C.). After call-up. men were sent to distant camps in Australia’s interior to begin work on strategic aerodromes, roads, etc. Conditions were harsh, and the conscripted men often initially unwilling. In addition there was considerable, and continuing, suspicion of the A.W.C.’s management: E.G. Theodore, who had a chequered past in politics and business, employed as his Director of Personnel a close business associate Frank Packer, the newspaper owner.3
The Unions involved frequently campaigned against what they saw as mismanagement, wastage and favouritism within the A.W.C. Disputes and stoppages were common. The A.W.C. management, in turn, accused the Unions and workers of hindering the war effort. In March 1943 a Commission of Inquiry was held under the National Security Regulations into “Certain Allegations Concerning the Administration of the A.W.C.”* Although the Commission found no basis for the allega tions, the inquiry itself is indicative of considerable discontent.
A memo from Packer’s department in 1942 stated, “You should realise first that these men are human, and in many instances the circumstances of their call-up creates a certain quite natural feeling of resentment. Brusque, discourteous and overbearing methods in dealing with them only tend to aggravate this feeling. The result is a deep seated discontent which colours their whole future outlook and can cause an immense amount of trouble for officers of the C.C.C. who have to exercise authority over them.”5
All of this added up to a serious P. R. problem for the A. W.C. both internally and externally, and it was into this situation that Cranstone was transferred. Cranstone moved into premises in Collins Street with a small darkroom and an assistant, Vera Hodgson (whom he later married), to process the films, print the negatives and file the photographs. Cranstone was able to move quite freely around Australia with the full support of the A. W.C. He always travelled with the public relations officer, Frank Clancy, who planned the team’s itinerary and wrote the captions for the photographs. In the far north they travelled very lightly, with only one Rolliflex, a few filters and film kept dry in bags of tea.
Cranstone exposed almost 2,000 negatives for the A.W.C, and approximately 7,000 prints a year were distributed from the department, both in Australia and overseas. At the end of the war it was estimated that ap- proximately 6,000 inches of Australian newspaper space were occupied by Cranstone’s photography per year.6
The most successful publicity project, however, was a travelling exhibition which toured to Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra in 1944. It comprised up to 500 of Cranstone’s photographs, some enlarged to 1.5 x 2.0 metres, with accompanying texts. Paintings by William Dobell and Herbert McClintock were also exhibited. The exhibition was enthusiastically received by the press and seen by approximately 80,000 people.
Cranstone’s photography can therefore be seen to have played a vital role in an extensive and well-orchestrated public relations campaign. The thrust of the campaign is summed up in another memo emanating from Packer’s department. “In so far as it is possible to do so you must, at all times, strive to impress on the men that they are not mere drudges performing a dull and routine task, but Australians, carrying out work of the first importance, without which the nation’s ability to defend itself adequately, or to launch an offensive, will be hamstrung. Everything possible should be done to make the men see themselves as civilian shock troops standing immediately behind the fighting services.”7
These themes of the “army behind the army”8 and “white collar shock troops”‘ are taken up in Cranstone’s photography of the C.C.C. workers and their projects. His imagery exhibits strong affinities with images of the proletariat worker used in Europe and the U.S.S.R. between the wars. It redeploys this imagery from a revolutionary, class-conscious context into the context of Australia’s nationalistic war-effort. In C.C.C. worker, a diagonal composition and upward looking camera angle are again used. Strips of shadow twisting across the worker’s bare torso emphasise his strength and physicality as he pushes a spanner forward and out of the picture plane. This action links, composi-tionally and connotatively, his right hand, as it easily grasps the tool, to his face, as it looks up into the distance. All this iconises the worker — his strength, his skill and his commitment to his task.
Cranstone also photographed the machinery and construction work of the C.C.C. In C.C.C. Construction the workers are supported, both physically and compositional-ly, by the beams of a building firmly criss-crossing between the edges of the photograph. In another image of a worker with a drill the worker almost becomes part of the machine, connoting a symbiotic relationship between workers and their tools (front cover). Cranstone’s photography can therefore be seen to have operated along two axes. In his highly codified treatment of the specifics of the A.W.C.’s activities he constructed nationalistic metaphors for strength and commitment that could then be metonymically deployed within the documentary narrative structures of contemporary newspaper reports on the A.W.C. as well as the travelling exhibition. Or, to use a different terminology, Cranstone’s photographs were deployed syntagmatically as documents of the strategic works of the A.W.C. and paradigmatically as evocations of a nationalistically committed Australian worker. This paradigm excluded the worker as a classed, aged or self-aware individual.'”
As a reviewer of the exhibition for the Melbourne Herald wrote, “it would be surprising if most people did not take away a warm impression of that typical Australian, stripped to the waist, working on untouched land, levelling it, digging into it or building up from it. In a real immediate way, the show tells the story of how Australia — the country itself — has gone to war.””
After the war Cranstone became a cinematographer for the Commonwealth Film Unit, now Film Australia, until his retirement in 1966. Immediately following the war he continued some politically conscious documentary photography in the slums of Sydney for a short time. However he eventually gave up serious photography.
He regards his photography for the A.W.C. as his most important work, and it remains an impressive body of imagery even today. As he wrote at the end of the spiral bound albums that are the only remaining record of the exhibition: “Exhibitied in the capital cities of Australia, they have been able to change completely the attitude of the public towards the C.C.C. This attitude, created entirely by the repeated attacks of the newspapers, persisted right up to the time the exhibition was first shown. This demonstrates very plainly that documentary photography can be a real factor because of its ability to bare the truth.”13
1. I would like to thank Edward and Vera Cranstone for the time they have spent with me. Most of the following biographical information is obtained from an interview recorded with them in March 1983 and an autobiographical manuscript supplied by Edward Cranstone. See also Edward Cranstone, “Documentary Assignment”, Contemporary Photography, vol. 1, no. 2, 1947.
2. Lloyd Ross. John Curtin — a biography. Macmillan. 1977. p.288 See also J.A. Morley, “The Allied Works Council”. Rydge’s Magazine. November 1942.
3. Irwin Young. Theodore — his Life and Times. Alpha Books.! 971. pp.
4. H.P. Brown (Commissioner). Inquiry under the National Security Regulations into the Administration of the Allied Works Council. 5 March 1942. National Library of Australia.
5. W. Steward Howard Manner of dealing with recruits. A.W.C. Person nel Department Circular No. 1. Australian Archives. Brighton, Victoria, ac cession no. M.P. 72, series 1-18.
6. F. Clancy. A Report upon the Photographic Activities of the Allied Works Council 15/12/42 — 30/6/45. Department of Works. Australian Ar chives, op. cit.
7. Quoted in ” “White Collar” Troops Carry On” The Sun 3/8/42.
8. “The civilian army behind the fighting army.” The Sydney Morning Herald 1/8/42.
9. The Sun op. cit.
10. See Roland Barthes. Elements of Semiology. Hill and Wang, 1968.
11. K..K. “Australia Portrayed Stripped to the Waist”. Herald. 3/8/44.
12. Edward Cranstone. Design for War. Vol. 3. Collection: Australian National Gallery. MARTYN JOLLY
Martyn Jolly is Curatorial Assistant in the Department of Photography, Australia National Gallery.