November 2: 1926, Australian photographer John Cato was born.
Fifty years later I met him as my photography lecturer at Prahran College of Advanced Education. Having recounted that meeting in another post about Cato’s head of department and business colleague Athol Shmith, I want here to concentrate on the man’s photographs, selecting just a few from the many he made to find some that might sum up this extraordinary artist.
John was a pedigreed photographer, one who made his living from it and who thought hard about it, who through his father met practitioners of the highest ranks in the medium, from the moment he was born. He was the son of Jack Cato, a giant in the Australian professional photography industry whose last years and much of his savings were spent writing The Story of the Camera in Australia, the country’s first history of the medium.
John was apprenticed in his father’s studio from the age of 12, leaving only to join the Navy for World War II. It is an episode he related to me from his war years that sticks in my mind to give some insight into what he believed and felt. He was on a wharf in New Guinea while Japanese prisoners-of-war were being offloaded from a ship. A digger emerged from the huts at the end of the wharf, walked up to one of the Japanese, unhooked his rifle from his shoulder and shot the man dead, saying “This is for my mates.”.
Cato in telling his war story 30 years after it had ended, to someone with no memory or experience of the war and whose own father had remained completely silent about it, was expecting his story to be a shock. It was, but not in the way he expected. In my experience, everyone of Cato’s generation hated the ‘Japs’, believing nothing good about them; they represented everything that the war was, and they were evil. Not Cato. Clearly he felt the digger’s act was cowardly, an ugly war crime that let his country down, that had horrified him. Cato witnessed the event as a young man, younger than many of the students he taught. The soldier’s deed was immoral, it was evil, and John felt it still. Here was a man who was not afraid of standing against public opinion, who stood by his own beliefs and morals. And so did he teach.
His method was to seek out the aptitudes and endowments of each student who came before him; his teaching and mentorship involved a deep empathy with each student’s approach. He was compassionate, almost clairvoyant in being able to very quickly identify one’s strengths and it was on those he would concentrate, unafraid to express criticism; but only in terms of how a certain fault might detract from a certain strength.
At he same time, he taught by example, through his own practice. Released from professional photography and inspired by his teaching, he undertook the making of vast series of images over the teaching breaks that might span years. Landscapes in a Figure, his first photographic essay was begun four years before he left his commercial practice. He completed the essay in five black and white photo sequences between 1971 and 1979. It was part of Earth Song, the early part of which was exhibited in a group show at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1971 under the curatorship of filmmaker Jennie Boddington, the first curator of photography in a public gallery in Australia, who was promoting the medium at a time when it was still struggling to be recognised as an art form in Australia.
The scale of his projects match their vision. A virtuoso printer, Cato was able to carve images from the Australian outback landscape into powerful signs, like petroglyphs. His black and white prints exploit the full range of tones, exaggerating contrast or flattening it, whatever is needed to draw out the symbolic.
A self-proclaimed animist, he felt, heard and saw the spirits of the landscape as he spent days alone, photographing along the Coorong where the sea, the big Murray River and dunes meet; or up in the stark petrified ranges of South Australia. Thus his images are peopled with beings other than humans. The epic quality was akin to that of Australian writing of the 50s and 60s, of Eleanor Dark, Xavier Herbert, Dal Stivens, Patrick White and the later Gerald Murnane, in whose book The Plains Cato found a kindred consciousness, and shared ideas with art like that of Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker or Fred Williams, and encompassed the scale of composers like Peter Sculthorpe or Ross Edwards. He is certainly the equal of any of these, though without deserved recognition.
Unlike most animists however, he was a dualist, a state he saw reflected in the medium he used, with its negative and positive renditions enabling him to represent the yin and yang in pairs of images combining or inferring both states. His environmentalist and indigenous sympathies generated a series Broken Spears which represents both black and white struggles against each other and against the landscape, ultimately futile in the white man’s case, while Man Tracks makes vivid the degradation that ‘civilisation’ has wrought.
At the beginning of this year, Cato, dead 5 years, visited me as I kayaked down the Glenelg River with friends. As I watched the shoreline pass me by, its myriad branches, grasses and strata of rock were reflected perfectly in the brimming, still, black water…so perfectly that it became hard to distinguish between reflection and reflected. Rhythmically paddling, with head to the side as I went, I was mesmerised, and recalled vividly John’s exhibition of a series of photographs taken this way of reflections of landscape in water, turned on their side. Perhaps the reflections were in this very water (as he traveled frequently through this area taking his photographs). The division of water and land disappeared, and I was seeing the spirits he photographed passing me, so very present was the hallucination. Of all of his work, these were the most revelatory to me, so much of the essence of both landscape and photography, the dualist, reflective medium, itself.
The experience of seeing John’s photographs as he saw them, in the landscape, makes me feel he is still out there. If only more Australians could access his work, we would better understand and appreciate this ancient land. As is so typical of this nation, we are slow to recognise our best.