An image of Phenomena

Cecil Bostock

(Australia 1884 – 1939)


Not on display
Further information

Bostock remains an enigmatic personality in Australian pictorial and early modernist photography. This is at least in part due to his body of work being scattered on his death in 1939 as it was auctioned to cover his debts. Fortunately ‘Phenomena’ was left to his former assistant Max Dupain who had worked with him from 1930 to 1933. Dupain later wrote: ‘I spent three years with this very thorough craftsman and the study of his exacting and original methods formed a solid background for my future work and development. It was a tortuous experience for such a sensitive fresher.’1

Bostock was a founding member of the Sydney Camera Circle in 1916. He became a member of the Royal Photographic Society in London while overseas on war service and on his return to Sydney in 1920 he set up as a photographer specialising in photographic work for advertising and industry. He was also a skilled craftsman in bookbinding (as his father had been). He edited and designed the catalogues for his fellow pictorialists and remained a member of the Camera Circle until the end of 1935. However, he was always somewhat eccentric in his photography in comparison to the dominant soft-focus style. His work was usually more direct and his interest in form and abstraction was clear from the early 1930s. He joined the independent Contemporary Camera Groupe and exhibited with them in 1938. He also supported Dupain in his early experimentation.

‘Phenomena’ was one of 11 photographs Bostock exhibited with the Contemporary Camera Groupe and it was placed in the window at David Jones along with other photographs such as ‘Plum blossom’ 1937 by Olive Cotton and ‘Mechanisation of art’ by Laurence Le Guay. ‘Phenomena’ is a wonderful modernist work with its plays of light and dark and disorienting shapes and curving lines. It is impossible to tell exactly how the shapes are made or where the light is coming from, nor what the objects are. It could easily be exhibited upside down 2 where the viewer could be looking down on objects arranged on a flat surface. ‘Phenomena’ is a tribute to Bostock’s restless, inventive and exacting abilities.

1. Newton G 1980, ‘Max Dupain’, David Ell Press, Sydney p 20
2. As it appears in Newton G 1988, op cit p 112, but from the signature and notations on the back of this print it is most likely that the work should be seen as reproduced here, where it is much more difficult to comprehend the shapes

© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007

circa 1938
gelatin silver photograph
26.3 x 30.5 cm image/sheet
Signature & date

Signed c. verso, ink "Cecil W Bostock". Not dated.

Gift of Max Dupain 1980
Accession number