Jane Brown is one of six young artists paying tribute to Wolfgang Sievers.

Jane Brown is one of six young artists paying tribute to Wolfgang Sievers. Photo: Simon Schluter

Younger artists could be forgiven for not knowing of Wolfgang Sievers, the German photographer who fled his homeland in 1938 after the Nazis tried to engage him as an aerial photographer for the military.

It was a long time ago, after all, but his legacy has been enduring. 

Sievers ended up in Australia at the start of WWII and joined the armed services here; and rather than devoting his talents to the Luftwaffe, he was eventually able to get out his cameras, set up a studio at the top end of Collins Street and start documenting Australia, heroically and with enormous style.

The National Library of Australia meticulously scanned Sievers’ extraordinarily large output - so when Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography last year commissioned six artists to respond to Sievers’ work for a new exhibition, there was a lot for them to explore.

Some of the artists, says centre director Naomi Cass, followed diligently in the master’s footsteps; others among these emerging artists of various ages chose to riff off a single photograph.

‘‘Their brief was to immerse themselves in Wolfgang Sievers but we were never going to direct them,’’ Cass says. ‘‘We didn’t mind if they responded to his narcissism, his political beliefs, his photography, his interest in architecture, his Bauhaus background, his engagement with German intellectuals: it was open.’’

Most of the six artists were very familiar with Sievers’ photographs and artist Jane Brown already knew how mesmerising his images of Australian industry and manufacturing sites could be. She went to Broken Hill, where Sievers had documented the Broken Hill Associated Smelters site in 1959, and to the old Australian Paper Mills (APM) in Melbourne, now owned by Amcor.

‘‘In Broken Hill, I got transfixed by some of the machinery that had been left behind, that had probably been there since the ‘50s when Sievers was there,’’ she says. ‘‘Some of it almost formed a memorial to the miners, as well.’’

Her work documents machinery, slag-heaps, architecture and, she says, it picks up on Sievers’ aesthetics and ideas.

‘‘He was working for commercial clients, so his work is very beautiful and carefully constructed,’’ she says of the images produced there and at APM. ‘‘At the same time there was something of Sievers’ aesthetic I wanted to connect with as well.’’

Brown says Sievers was very much a part of the optimism of Melbourne being a manufacturing hub, and she has been struck by the loss of this optimism and the changes that have happened since his time.

‘‘It is quite saddening. You wonder what has happened to all these people that worked there? That sense of employment, that loss. It seemed so purposeful - they built these things to last, it wasn’t as transient as work is today. You could identify with it more, there was great pride in the work.’’

Little wonder she describes an astonishing site she happened upon at APM in Fairfield: a room of boots that workers had simply stepped out of and abandoned when their jobs had, en masse, come to an end.

‘‘As with my photographs of the abandoned mining equipment in Broken Hill, my representation of the former paper plant is also a testament to the machine,’’ Brown writes for The Sievers Project catalogue. ‘‘But far from being the shiny new examples of engineering in the machine age, these machines were worn down, covered in pulp or branded with a pre-demolition acronym: NAD (No Asbestos Detected).

‘‘Symbolic of Australian manufacturing in decline, these images also pose questions – what had it been like to work there, had these workers found other jobs, and why had they left their boots behind?’’

Cass and curator Kyla McFarlane are enormously excited about the work created by Brown, and by the other artists Cameron Clarke, Zoe Croggon, Therese Keogh, Phuong Ngo and Meredith Turnbull.

They say one of the key ingredients to doing the show – which includes Sievers’ photography as well as the six artists’ responses - was working with collector Julian Burnside, the QC and human rights advocate who also owns a large number of Sievers’ images.

In an introduction to the catalogue, Burnside writes that in 2004 Sievers offered him a collection of 92 framed photographs. ‘‘I agreed to buy them, sight unseen. He told me later how pleased he was that I had said yes so quickly. Apparently, galleries around the country had set up committees to consider the acquisition. For all I know, they are still considering it.’’

A year before Sievers’ death in 2007, he asked Burnside to accept a large collection of photographs and use them to raise money for human rights causes.

‘‘Since then, sales of photographs from that collection have raised over $340,000, the only expense being the cost of framing some of the collection,’’ Burnside says. ‘‘With his lifelong concern about human rights, I think he would be quietly pleased that his legacy lives.’’

For the artists responding to Sievers’ work, it has been an immersion in research over about a year, says Cass. This included viewing works in Burnside’s chambers, excursions to the National Gallery of Victoria, the State Library of Victoria and the design archive at RMIT, and speaking to Burnside and Helen Ennis.

Ennis is one of Australia’s leading photography curators and historians, and in her book Wolfgang Sievers she writes that his industrial photography was bold, imaginative and masterful.

‘‘In his hands, industrial photography became a thoroughly creative enterprise, displaying his own distinctive vision that was at once theatrical, futuristic and impersonal. Over time, it also became increasingly grand.’’

It was also incredibly contrived.

She quotes Sievers explaining in great detail how he came to make one of his most famous photographs, Gears for the Mining Industry, taken in 1967 at the Vickers Ruwolt factory in Abbotsford, the site that is now home to Ikea.

This image was used for a 1994 Australia Post stamp, but at that small size it is hard to see how meticulously crafted it is - both technically and theatrically.

Sievers told Burnside and Ennis how he wandered around the factory looking for subjects, found two giant half wheels covered in grime and asked for them to be cleaned and placed one above the other. He set up his high-wattage lamps and asked for one of the engineers to stand between them heroically.

‘‘They protested, saying that they would never normally do such a thing,’’ writes Burnside. ‘‘Wolfgang insisted. The entire process of setting up the photograph took 18 hours, and he took two frames.’’

Ennis says while this photo might symbolise Australia’s manufacturing and industrial skills, ‘‘the scene Sievers created is fantastical - or, in his own words, ‘a fake’. The gears do not and cannot work in the configuration realised for the photograph".

The bulk of Australian industry might now be a distant memory with all these remnants of manufacturing - huge rolling pins at APM or giant gears at Vickers Ruwolt - probably melted down for scrap. But back then, as Sievers documented it, they made us proud of our achievements on the world stage.

Jane Brown’s empty boots tell a different story.

The Sievers Project is at CCP June 13-August 31. ccp.org.au