Issue #147  8/4/2008
Photo Book Review: E.O. Hoppé's Australia

By Matt Damsker


Essay by Graham Howe & Erika Esau. 2008, W.W. Norton & Co., New York. $49.95, clothbound; 207 pgs, approximately 200 black-and-white plates. ISBN No. 978-0-393-06611-1. Information: http://www.wwnorton.com .

This superb volume follows last year's publication, also by W.W. Norton, of "E.O. Hoppé's Amerika," cataloguing the Silverstein Gallery's groundbreaking survey, in which the great proto-modernist work of German-born Emil Otto Hoppé (1878-1972) was featured in its first retrospective in some 80 years. Hoppé had been the world's most famous photographer when he arrived in America in 1919, having established a London studio in which he photographed the celebrities of the day. Once in New York he turned his lens toward its street life, skyscrapers, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Grand Central Station, yielding first-rate images and accepting a commission to photograph the U.S. from coast to coast--a monumental survey that would anticipate the Farm Service Administration projects of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, et al.

He also visited Australia, arriving in Sydney in 1930 with the intention of staying only a few months. But as Graham Howe and Erika Esau chronicle in their well-researched essay in this new book, he was so profoundly charmed by the cultural richness of the Fifth Continent that he stayed on for close to a year, taking more than 3,000 photographs. The result is a survey to rival his classic American portfolio--more to the point, it's a matchless exploration of Australia's urban heights and rural depths, moving through Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Canberra, and the remote Outback.

Hoppé captured the tribal earthiness of aboriginal life in a host of powerfully human images, and he also evoked the modern complexity of Australia's colonial narrative. In his observant, journalistic photos of the cities and its inhabitants, Hoppé reveals a staunch British mercantilism and transplanted culture taking root in a vast, arid frontier, amid a dusty, rolling landscape, gorgeous beaches and hardscrabble towns. He photographed the shanties of the unemployed, the lumberjacking, the mills, the spare shop fronts of the working class, and the idylls of the bourgeoisie--all of it in the context of Australia's harsh sunlight and richness of natural resources.

The greatest of these photos, though, are of Sydney during the epic construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. By then, of course, Hoppé had already established his modernist credentials through his American portfolio, with its views of crisscrossing girders and bridgework in industrial locales, the smokestacks of Detroit's auto factories and shadowed elevated railway structures. In Sydney, Hoppé evoked the Harbour Bridge as an epic presence and symbol of Australia's rise to major urban/industrial status, as he focused on its cables, girders, and the stages of its construction, varying his approach wonderfully. Some images are in close-up, veering on sheer abstraction, while others present the city of Sydney, its geometry of buildings compressed within a tight, high, Cezanne-ish vantage point, with the Harbour Bridge romantically taking shape in the misty distance.

Indeed, Hoppé's Australian survey is a revelation in many ways. On the most basic level, it offers a sprawling vision of Down Under at a crucial moment in its history. It is also nuanced, empathetic, detailed, impeccably composed, open to wonder and instinctively modern in its eye for human figuration at its most candid, and in its grasp of industrial material and urban design as emblems of a timeless world remaking itself into something new. One can only look forward to more popularizing of Hoppé's body of work, for it affirms a superior aesthetic vision along with an encouraging humanism.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)