Wolfgang Sievers was one of the finest architectural and industrial photographers working in Australia in the second half of the twentieth century. For an extended biography click on the peer reviewed biography tab below.
Photographer, born on 18 September 1913 in Berlin, Germany. He was educated and raised in a culturally privileged family environment; his father, Johannes, was an eminent professor and art historian and Director of Cultural Affairs in the German Foreign Ministry. His mother, Herma (née Schiffer), was a writer and Director of the Institute for Educational Films who regularly took him to the opera and the theatre. Sievers grew up in the mercurial atmosphere of the Weimar Republic until the Nazi party seized power in 1933. Herma’s parents were Jewish which, according to Jewish cultural and religious tradition specifying lineage through the mother, meant Wolfgang was as well. Nazi racial laws (the Eugenic Sterilization Law for example) implemented through agencies including The National Socialist Racial and Political Office, put Sievers at risk of persecution.
Sievers began to take photographs at the age of fifteen, using a Zeiss Ikon box camera, assisting with his father’s research work. Following the death of his mother in 1932 and his father’s dismissal from his official position (for refusing to serve under Goebbels), Sievers departed for Portugal in 1934. He stayed with Hans Freytag, the German ambassador in Portugal, who was a close family friend. Sievers continued his photography while in Portugal, he photographed the ruins of monuments, the Portuguese countryside, and the sculptures of his friend, artist Hein Semke. In 1934, he and Semke took part in a group exhibition of modern art at the National Society of Fine Arts. In 1935, due to the political climate and conservative artistic circles, Sievers went briefly to Spain. After becoming ill and spending a short time in prison, he returned to Portugal via Gibraltar and North Africa, then returned to Berlin. After being arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned for a short time in 1936, he resumed his photography.
He began study at the Contempora Lehrateliers für neue Werkkunst (the Contempora School for Modern Applied Arts) in Berlin, “a successor to the celebrated Bauhaus” (Calado c2000, pg 41). His studies here, and the school’s emphasis on the Bauhaus tenets of simplicity and purity of line, formed the foundation for his future work in both theory and subject matter. After the completion of his studies in 1938 (under teacher and mentor Erich Balg), he also taught at the school, and anticipating the worsening political situation, Sievers decided to leave Germany for Australia. He arrived in Fremantle on the P&O Cormoran in September 1938 and was met by, and stayed with, John Reynolds (Professor of History at the University of Western Australia), one of three sponsors organized for him. His other two sponsors were photographer Axel Poignant and H.A. Pittman, Director of Dookie Agricultural College. Sievers moved to Adelaide a few weeks later, then to Sydney, forming acquaintances with Max Dupain, Sydney Ure Smith, and Athol Shmith, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. He eventually settled permanently in Melbourne.
He initially found work for advertising agencies, architectural clients, and industrial clients, including Charles Ruwolt (later Vickers Ruwolt), prior to the outbreak of World War II in 1939. During the war, Sievers married former fellow Contempora student Brita Klarich, with whom he later had two children. (They divorced in 1972). He worked as a portrait photographer until he enlisted in the war in 1942, engaging in heavy manual labour duties.
He received Australian citizenship in 1944 and worked in the photographic department of the army headquarters in Melbourne until 1946. It was then, in 1946, that Sievers established a studio in Collins St, Melbourne, which operated until 1976. Residents during these years included the painter Albert Tucker.
Wolfgang Sievers’ early post-war work focused on the application of Bauhaus aesthetic principles to photographing modern architecture, and some commercial and industrial work. He photographed primarily in black and white and, with his originality, simple design and unusual points of view, his images had great impact. In the mid 1970s he ceased photographing architecture, as he felt he was “repeating himself”(Calado c2000, pg 46) and had lost faith in the “parlous”(Ennis 1998, unpaged) state of contemporary architecture in Australia. He concentrated on photographing (heavy) industry in which he “found [the] clean forms and wonderful shapes”(Writelight 1998, unpaged) and grand scale which came to characterize his images, and embraced industrial photography, almost to the exclusion of all else.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Sievers worked increasingly in colour and undertook large mining, oil and industrial commissions for Vickers Ruwolt and Broken Hill Associated Smelters, as well as assignments for the Department of Overseas Trade. He travelled extensively throughout Australia and overseas, including an assignment in South America to photograph the archaeological sites in Colombia for the 'El Dorado Colombian Gold’ exhibition sponsored by the Australian government and exhibited in England, the U.S. and Australia, recalling his early interest in archaeology and the “most exciting job [he] ever did in [his] life”(Calado c2000, pg 51).
His travels to remote regions and his close work with the workers of industry and industrial sites (and his own experiences in Nazi Germany), shaped Sievers’ social conscience and interest in and advocating for human rights and environmental issues. He was an active and vocal supporter of Amnesty International and Médecins sans Frontières and he specified in his will that ten percent of his estate be left to the Indigenous people in Central Australia for education and healthcare. He stopped working professionally as a photographer in the 1990s and began work in the identification and research on the lives of Nazi war criminals who emigrated to Australia.
It was in Paris in 1989 that he saw I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid, and felt inspired – despite his earlier abandonment of architectural photography – to photograph it, as well as the La Defense complex and other architectural pieces commissioned by the late Francois Mitterand.
In 1991, to commemorate the sesquicentenary of Australian photography, Australia Post issued a set of four stamps using the images from four different Australian photographers, one of whom was Wolfgang Sievers. The image selected was his (now famous) image Gears for Mining (for Vickers Ruwolt in 1967). It was also in 1991 that the Australian National Gallery held the first major retrospective of his work, 'The life and work of Wolfgang Sievers’.
He made periodical return visits to Germany throughout the early and mid 1990s, and on a trip in 1992 he found some negatives of photographs he had taken more than fifty years prior (while assisting his father), contributing to an exhibition at the Schloss Glienicke in 1992, as homage to his father.
Wolfgang Sievers, Australia’ s preeminent industrial photographer and a “man of the twentieth century”, died on 7 August 2007 in Linacre Hospital, Hampton. His now iconic industrial images were “instrumental in changing the image of Australia as a country of wheat and wool to one of industry, craftsmen and scientific achievements” (Zucker and Jones 2007, pg 7).