1913 – 2007
“My career in photography gave me freedom to do or not to do what I wanted. The most important thing is I had the feeling that I was contributing to the development of Australia.”  

            Born in Berlin in 1913, Wolfgang Sievers grew up in the heyday of the Weimar Republic, when Berlin was regarded by many as the cultural and scientific centre of the world. He was introduced to the arts by his parents, who took him with them to concerts, plays, film screenings and art galleries. His father, Professor Johannes Sievers, was arts adviser to the German foreign office from 1918 until his dismissal in 1933 by the National Socialists as an exponent of  ‘depraved’  modern art. His mother, Herma, was director of a government film institute devoted to the international exchange of cultural films.

            Professor Sievers was himself interested in photography; on his honeymoon in 1908 he had sailed around the world and in 1911 he published a book of sixty-five of the photographs he had taken in India. He encouraged his son to take up photography and gave him a box camera when he was about 15 years old. On a holiday trip to Italy in 1930 the 16-year-old Wolfgang produced some promising photographs, among them a dramatic landscape of San Gimignano which is still in existence. In 1938 Wolfgang was called up to serve in the Luftwaffe but escaped to England.


            With the support of three sponsors, one of whom was English-born but Australian-resident photographer Axel Poignant (1906-1986), he migrated to Australia, arriving in Sydney in 1938 intending to settle and practise as a photographer. The Pictorialist aesthetic was then dominant in Australian photography and Wolfgang was relieved to meet Max Dupain, whom he believed to be the only Australian photographer aware of modern ideas. Much as he liked the Sydney artistic scene, the summer humidity defeated him and he soon moved to Melbourne, which was to remain his base for the rest of his life.


            Throughout his long career Wolfgang focused on the role and conditions of workers in the machine age. For him the centre of the work relationship was the physical contact between people, machines and their output. Quite a number of his photographs focus on the worker's hands as the source of productivity and skill. Fittingly, his final exhibition, opened posthumously in Melbourne in 2008, was entitled Work, and was something which he had been working towards for many years.

             From the late 1960s, accommodating the needs of his commercial clients, Wolfgang worked principally in colour. However, it is only since the mid-1980s that colour photography has been accepted as having the same artistic integrity as black and white. Wolfgang's use of colour over the years was often theatrical – out-of-context colour serving to dramatise his industrial scenes and indeed many of his photographs resemble sets or dioramas illuminated by strangely coloured lights.

            His black and white work, though, its what he is principally remembered for, including his two most-known images, Matches at Bryant and May, Melbourne (1939) and Gears for Mining Industry, Vickers Ruwolt, Melbourne (1967). Since his arrival in Australia in 1938 Wolfgang Sievers made an extremely significant – but still largely unacknowledged – contribution to Australian cultural life. In this film he discloses the thinking behind the images and the mechanics of taking them, as well as the changes the country and its landscape brought to his life and work.


"Haven't I said enough by now? Where are we going for lunch?"

 – Wolfgang Sievers




The DVD of Words on Light : Wolfgang Sievers will be available from Artsdoc Australia.

For further details please click here.


DVD video    16:9    PAL    colour    stereo sound    88 minutes


Words on Light : Wolfgang Sievers credits


Wolfgang's archive can be contacted here.


  For more information on the individual photographers, please click on the links below

Jeff Carter      David Moore      Robyn Stacey      Robert Walker