Exhibition Review: The Sievers Project

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Centre for Comtemporary Photography. Fitzroy
until 31 August 2014

Younger artists could be forgiven for not knowing of Wolfgang Sievers, the German photographer who fled his homeland in 1938 after the Nazis tried to engage him as an aerial photographer for the military.

It was a long time ago, after all, but his legacy has been enduring.
Sievers ended up in Australia at the start of WWII and joined the armed services here; and rather than devoting his talents to the Luftwaffe, he was eventually able to get out his cameras, set up a studio at the top end of Collins Street and start documenting Australia, heroically and with enormous style.

The National Library of Australia meticulously scanned Sievers’ extraordinarily large output – so when Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography last year commissioned six artists to respond to Sievers’ work for a new exhibition, there was a lot for them to explore.

Some of the artists, says centre director Naomi Cass, followed diligently in the master’s footsteps; others among these emerging artists of various ages chose to riff off a single photograph.

“Their brief was to immerse themselves in Wolfgang Sievers but we were never going to direct them,” Cass says. “We didn’t mind if they responded to his narcissism, his political beliefs, his photography, his interest in architecture, his Bauhaus background, his engagement with German intellectuals: it was open.”

Most of the six artists were very familiar with Sievers’ photographs and artist Jane Brown already knew how mesmerising his images of Australian industry and manufacturing sites could be. She went to Broken Hill, where Sievers had documented the Broken Hill Associated Smelters site in 1959, and to the old Australian Paper Mills (APM) in Melbourne, now owned by Amcor.

“In Broken Hill, I got transfixed by some of the machinery that had been left behind, that had probably been there since the ‘50s when Sievers was there,” she says. “Some of it almost formed a memorial to the miners, as well.”

Her work documents machinery, slag-heaps, architecture and, she says, it picks up on Sievers’ aesthetics and ideas.

“He was working for commercial clients, so his work is very beautiful and carefully constructed,” she says of the images produced there and at APM. “At the same time there was something of Sievers’ aesthetic I wanted to connect with as well.”

Brown says Sievers was very much a part of the optimism of Melbourne being a manufacturing hub, and she has been struck by the loss of this optimism and the changes that have happened since his time.

“It is quite saddening. You wonder what has happened to all these people that worked there? That sense of employment, that loss. It seemed so purposeful – they built these things to last, it wasn’t as transient as work is today. You could identify with it more, there was great pride in the work.”

Via the Sydney Morning Herald