January 16: “The first function of the camera is to record – to see as the eye saw; see more than the eye saw – to give it versatility, to exaggerate detail, to portray surfaces, textures, details, surfaces… It must be ever-busy – at close-up rather than distance – searching out the very quintessence of things, its physical quality,” wrote Eric Keast Burke in a 1932 article ‘Let us have more photography’ published in the Australasian Photo-Review. Born this day in 1896 in New Zealand, he migrated with his father and mother to Australia in 1904.
He was clearly encouraged in taking up photography from an early age by his father Walter Burke who was editor of the Australasian Photo-Review. Probably his first writing on the subject, at age 16, appeared as the main feature in the magazine, reported by Table Talk, Thursday 8 February 1912, in their ‘publications received’ as “an article Two Boys and a Brownie, written and illustrated by Eric Keast Burke. The article describes a Christmas trip in New South Wales to Mittagong, Wombeyan Caves and Wollondelly River, and the illustrations give fresh evidence of the versatility of the Brownie cameras.”
Thus already active as a photographer as well as writer, when he enlisted in 1917 in the Australian Imperial Force serving as a sapper with the Anzac Wireless Squadron, Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, he made numbers of sympathetic pictures of local people in the Middle East where he served, as well as of fellow soldiers. After the war he launched a very thorough research of his unit and in 1927 released its history; With Horse and Morse in Mesopotamia, giving public talks in order to promote it. It was regarded as exemplary and established his credentials as a researcher which were later to become invaluable.
Burke’s contributions to Australian photographic history were formative. He was associate editor (under his father Walter Burke) of the Australasian Photo-Review after WWI when he introduced Modernist photography to AP-R.
In the 30s and 40s he produced some remarkable images of Australian men in tribute to that physicality that stand apart from the rest of his achievements, which were many.
The style and formal arrangement of these images is typical of the aesthetics of the ‘New Photography’ which reached Australia from Europe via modern advertising and publications such as Das Deutsche Lichtibild, Photographie and from the UK in the English language Modern Photography published by the British Studio magazine. From the last year of WWI the Australasian Photo-Review editors were expressing concern that pictorialism had become stale and formulaic.
By 1932, now as editor of Australasian Photo-Review, Keast Burke had become more strident in his support for the New Photography for its value in both commercial advertising and in art, the latter exemplified in the significant Modern Spirit exhibition in London of that year. AP-R‘s UK correspondent, the Rev. H. O. Fenton, reporting on Modern Spirit, was a little unsure about the legitimacy of abstract views of familiar objects, and quoted F. J. Mortimer, the editor of Amateur Photographer: “Once a man photographed a room, now he takes the keyhole and makes an enlargement of it.”.
But Burke’s position is more decisive; “the modern movement may influence the future trend of photography by extending the range of our visions . . and provide us . . with much needed stimulus”.
AP-R’s cover of 15 March 1932 by Burke was the first which could be described as typically modernist with its dynamic photograph of the structures of Sydney Harbour Bridge. In December 1932 Burke had written;
The New Photography is the kind which seeks to shatter that blissful state of peace with photographs of an entirely different kind. It demands that photography shall be purely objective, shall photograph anything and everything – snap repetition and pattern wherever it is to be found.
That same year he published the Harbour Bridge photographs in a volume entitled Achievement : a collection of unusual studies of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney : Mick Simmons Ltd. His second modernist AP-R cover was for 14 January 1933 featuring a diver and diving board photographed in a similar style, emphasising form and structure and indistinguishable from images of divers and athletes being photographed by the Modernists of Europe and the USA.
Keast Burke’s determination to assimilate the new style into his work can be seen in the tug of war between the painterliness of pictorialism, in his warm-toned prints, and the boldness and geometricism of Modernism.
These muscular images at first glance seem to be homoerotic in intent. However, they make perfect sense in the 1930s context of Australian society’s sun worship and veneration of healthy athletic bodies and lifestyles, and in relation to the imagery of Max Dupain, especially his famous Sunbaker, and of Olive Cotton, Laurence Le Guay and Harold Cazneaux.
Isobel Crombie has written extensively and convincingly on this movement in her Body Culture: Max Dupain, Photography and Australian Culture 1919-1939, published in Melbourne by Peleus Press in 2004. She relates it to a mounting enthusiasm for eugenics, sunbathing, nudist cults and Nietzschean-derived vitalist philosophies spread throughout Western cultures of this period leading up to the Second World War.
Max Dupain’s father, physical culturist, George Dupain in particular was influential in his promotion of activities of nudism, eurythmics, the revival of classical ideals, beauty culture, the cult of the lifesaver, fashion advertising and tourism. Modernist photography in Australia was the vehicle for this idealisation of the national body after the malaise of the First World War.
It is Eric Keast Burke amongst these photographers who takes these ideas to the image of the construction worker and ‘the man on the land’. Framing his athletic, mostly bare-chested male subjects against the blue sky or from above, always in full sunlight and often at the peak of day, he uses the formal innovations of Modernism to energise and heroise them. Tools of the trade, to which his compositions give prominence, stand as noble emblems of labour. The subjects ignore the camera to concentrate on their work; they are craftsmen, not common laborers.
He abandons the ‘straighter’ documentary of Mulga Oats (above) for a more symbolic representation of the pastoralist who becomes primeval, mythic and god-like.
His work was exhibited in Australia, including a show 22nd September to 13th October 1938 in the Kodak Salon, Sydney, and in Europe, London and the United States of America. In 1938 was elected an associate of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain for his folio of photographs of male subjects, most he submitted have a neo-classist bent that does not sit quite as comfortably with Australian nationalism as do his labourers and farmers.
Burke’s programme of historical articles in The Australian Photo-Review (AP-R) from 1943-1956 as editor included articles on pioneering Australian photographers John Lindt and Charles Kerry at a time when the history of our photography was very scant and under-appreciated. His father Walter who preceded him as editor of the AP-R had also been historically minded and both Keast’s son Quentin, and wife Iris, assisted in research and article writing for the AP-R.
Most importantly in 1953 he discovered, in a shed in Chatswood, New South Wales, B. O. Holtermann’s collection of glass-plate negatives ranged in ‘neat stacks of cedar boxes of various dimensions, each with slotted fittings which held the large negatives in perfect preservation’, all photographs by Charles Bayliss and Beaufoy Merlin. The negatives disclosed ‘every detail of the lives of our gold-fields pioneers’, from which Burke assembled his study of gold-mining imagery, devoting issues of AP-R to each of these trailblazers of Australian photography, later publishing Gold and silver : an album of Hill End and Gulgong photographs from the Holtermann Collection, Heinemann, 1973.
Keast provided his expertise to Jack Cato as the two carried out a regular correspondence of over 240 letters as the latter was researching for his The Story of the Camera in Australia, published in 1955, the first national history of the medium. These letters remain the only record of the research that went into Cato’s book. He was a storyteller rather than an historian and it was Keast Burke’s greater experience and rigour as a researcher, though neither was academic, that guided Cato, whose vernacular expression greatly amused him.
Having formally retired in 1960, from 1961 to 1969 Burke was editor and art director of Australian Popular Photography. By then both libraries and state galleries were beginning to collect and organise photographs as documents of Australian life, and as an art form. Harold White of the National Library of Australia worked with Keast Burke who proposed a two tier national collection: one part to be purely about the information which photographs contained, assembled by microfilming records and copying images in the library’s own darkrooms; the other part to be about the medium itself, made up of ‘artistic salon photographs’ and historic cameras.
Without his energy and devotion the course of Australian photography and the construction of its history might be very different!