Axel Poignant, Photographer, The Formative Years 1929–1942 — 5 February to 12 March 2011

Curator: Roslyn Poignant
5 February to 12 March 2011


filmstrip01.jpgAxel Poignant (1906-1986) is one of the most influential photographers of Australia’s new documentary movement and, in over five decades' work, proved himself a master of the photographic essay and documentary cinematography. This biographic exhibition surveys this photographer’s formative years in Perth, Western Australia from July 1931 to the end of 1942.


Roslyn Poignant’s research understands this period in her partner’s work as a drive to achieve a form of visual representation to express his growing social awareness. Poignant, of Anglo-Swedish descent, arrived in Sydney in 1926 and briefly trained as a farm worker. This is an account of Poignant’s artistic process and his life-long focus on the arts, experimental viewpoints and his encounter with the bush and Indigenous people. This is a two-part exhibition research project.


In 'the formative years' Roslyn Poignant sets unpublished and unexhibited prints made by Axel Poignant for his commercial studio showcase and original contact prints selected from original small reference prints alongside period exhibition prints, some reprinted for the artist’s first retrospective curated by Gael Newton at the Art Gallery of NSW in 1982 and subsequent surveys.


Axel Poignant's adoption of the small Leica camera with a precision lens liberated him to pursue current events and landscapes and to experiment with aerial and low points of view alongside his work as a commercial studio operator. Another theme running through these early years is sustaining friendships formed in Perth's small but vital arts community, in particular with journalist Norman Hall and artist Hal Missingham. Poignant and Missingham both found inspiration in the new photography of Cartier Bresson and the photographers of the American Farm Security Administation.


Poignant's passion for the natural world led to the Naturalists Club and Vincent Serventy and, in theatre, to director Keith George and the Workers Art Guild. This period of modest modernist rebellion was captured and defined by Julian Goddard's important exhibition and catalogue Aspects of Perth Modernism, 1929-1942 (UWA, 1986) which featured Poignant's photo-essays. The leading photographers, Poignant and Missingham, exhibited together in 1941 giving six talks in a two-week exhibition period, some practical, some theoretical, on the new documentary movement.


Poignant’s renowned Canning Stock Route pictures, taken in July 1942, was his last WA excursion before enlisting in the army. It was on this journey along the Canning Stock Route that his aesthetics and skills coalesced in a singular directness of vision and a life-changing encounter and where he resolved to leave the studio photographic world. No works from this period were published or exhibited until 1947 when two portraits—of a young Aboriginal mother and baby and a young head stockman—were awarded for their humanity of vision.


After World War II Axel Poignant worked first on Harry Watt's film The Overlanders, then as cinematographer on Namatjira the Painter for the Commonwealth Film Division. His most significant work is a self-generated assignment to photograph the Kunibidgi and their neighbours in Arnhem Land (1952). Forty years later, his wife Roslyn returned to the same area with the photographs and the outcome was published as Encounter at Nagalarramba (National Library of Australia, 1996).


For the exhibition, Roslyn Poignant, an acclaimed writer and anthropologist, has written a substantial biographic essay on Axel Poignant's early years.

> Download: Picture Story: Axel Poignant, photographer, The Formative Years 1929-1942, By Roslyn Poignant


Picture: Axel Poignant, Aboriginal Stockman on the Canning Stock Route, 1942. Small reference prints from Axel Poignant archive, London.





Axel Poignant-Hal Missingham, Exhibition of Photographs, 1941. Catalogue with a short forward, New Developments in Photography, by Alec King. Axel Poignant, Self-portrait with new Leica III, Perth 1934; Self-portrait with first movie camera, Perth, 1933-34.




The young Axel Poignant plays Pierrot to Rukmini Arundale’s Columbine, Sydney c.1929-30; Rukmini Devi (Mrs George Arundale) in Indian dress, and dance pose, Sydney 1929-30; Sandra Poignant dressed for the Royal Garden Party, Perth 1934.





Program 1937 Linley Wilson School of Dancing (lighting: Axel Poignant); Alison Lee, dancer, Perth, c.1936-38; Babs Fellowfield, as Isis in The Egyptian, 1937, handcoloured print. Courtesy His Majesty’s Theatre Archives, Perth.


Aerial Views, Perth, 1934



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Axel Poignant, First Reporting Assignment, Duke of Gloucester’s party at War memorial, Kings Park, Perth.

Axel Poignant, The Duke of Gloucester opened the Royal Show in the presence of 67,000 people, 4 October 1934.

Axel Poignant, Royal Show, Perth, car park, October 4 1934.


Naturalist Club, Perth



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Axel Poignant, Naturalist Club excursion, WA, c.1938-40. On right: Norman Hall and Vin Serventy. Axel Poignant, Silver gull parents and chick, coastal area, W.A c1938-39. Axel Poignant, Fairy Penguin on nest. Safety Bay, WA, c1939-40.  





Axel Poignant, Working Bullocks, Logging, Karri Forest, Pemberton, WA, September 1935; Banner of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, oil on canvas by Harald Vike, Labour Day March 1939, Perth.



Axel Poignant, Vincent Serventy, naturalist c.1939-40; Rock face, south coast near Bremer Bay, WA, c.1939-40; Jack Michael and his Family, WA, Pingelly District, c.1938-39.


Canning Stock Route, 1942


Axel Poignant, On the Canning Stock Route, Hugh Wilson, leader, 1942; Flooded Trees, Canning Stock Route, 1942.


Canning Stock Route, 1942


Axel Poignant, from left to right: Ted Graham, the camel man; A teamster; Head Stockman, from Canning Stock Route, June-July 1942.


Download Further Reading

Picture Story: Axel Poignant, photographer, The Formative Years 1929-1942, By Roslyn Poignant, Essay to accompany the exhibition at The Cross Art Projects, Sydney 2011


Roslyn Poignant, ‘The Photographic Witness?’ in Photogenic Papers edited by John Richardson, Continuum, v6, n2, 1993.

Online at


See also National Museum of Australia exhibition, Yiwarra Kuju: The Canning Stock Route (2010), for the history as told by the traditional custodians and through the works of artists.