Posts Tagged ‘Alcheringa


Opening speech: ‘John Cato Retrospective’ and book launch at the Ballarat International Foto Biennale by Dr Marcus Bunyan

Exhibition dates: 17th August – 15th September 2013

Opening: 17th August 2013


Installation photograph of the exhibition 'John Cato Retrospective' at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat


Installation photograph of the exhibition John Cato Retrospective at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat
Photograph by Marcus Bunyan
© Marcus Bunyan, John Cato family and Ballarat International Foto Biennale



It was an emotional time on Saturday afternoon as I opened the  John Cato Retrospective. I hope I did John and Dawn, their family and everyone proud. I burst into tears after the speech… I got a lovely email from Senga Peckham today which was very much appreciated:

“Dear Marcus

Thank you so much for your excellent speech on Saturday. It was strong, heartfelt and beautiful.

Up there with the microphone you were probably not aware of the sentiment in the space. Many tears were shed. The grand daughters were so happy to be there. They were near me during your talk and extremely emotional. Many others were too. It was more of a wake really than an exhibition opening and book launch. Some people had travelled a long way and everyone wanted to be there. The warmth and tenderness was palpable and will be remembered for a long time.

Thank you for being such a major part of it and for putting your heart into each word.

Senga Peckham”

Many thankx to BIFB for asking me to officially open the John Cato Retrospective and to launch the new book.

Photographers David Callow and Andrew Chapman’s video tribute to John Cato (18 mins 39 secs) can be viewed on Vimeo (Password is Cato)


John Cato Retrospective opening speech

It is a great pleasure to be here today to officially open the John Cato Retrospective and to launch a book that will have a major contribution to a continuing assessment of John’s work and is also an honouring, a mark of respect and admiration. These brief words are not about the many sides of John and all his aspects and careers – for that you will have to look elsewhere – but they are a short introduction to the personal and wider cultural need for John’s work.

My friendship with John and Dawn goes back to when I was studying photography at RMIT University in the early 1990s. John became a mentor when I held my first three solo photography exhibitions at the Photographers Gallery in Punt Road between 1991 and 1994. After I had finished my Phd in 2001, I co-curated a retrospective of his work at the very same gallery.

Many a weekend my partner and I travelled down to Carrum to see John and Dawn for lunch and afternoon tea, to talk about the things that matter in life – music, literature, art, love, loss – and to talk about my latest prints. They were the most glorious couple with such wonderful energy and they were so generous with their friendship and advice. John could smell bullshit a mile away and he would tell you, but he would also encourage you to look deeper into yourself and the world for the answers you were seeking. As James McArdle said to me recently, “He was a teacher determined to seek out the aptitudes and endowments of each student who came before him; his teaching and mentorship involved a deep empathy with each student’s approach. He was almost clairvoyant in being able to very quickly identify one’s strengths and it was on those he would concentrate, unafraid to express criticism; but only in terms of how a certain fault might detract from a certain strength.”1

And I will add, all of this with a warmth and affection that opened up a pathway to his insights.

John had strength of character in spades, always backed up by the vivacious Dawn. Imagine having a successful commercial career in Melbourne in the 1960s and giving it all away – to become an artist, a photographic artist at that! Imagine the courage it would have taken, in that time and place, to abandon all that had been successful in your life and follow another path, a path full of doubt and self-discovery, a journey that ultimately enabled him to help others through his teaching. As another friend of mine said to me recently, “In 1970 where did you go to see a fine art photograph on exhibition in a non-institutional gallery in Melbourne? The only place was the doorway to the John Cato / Athol Shmith / Paul Barr studio in Collins Street. You would never know which of the three photographers would have a print placed in that doorway.”

According to Helen Ennis there has always been a distaste for self-reflective and contemplative modes of thinking in Australia, and photography has overwhelmingly been about ‘things’, “including actions and events, which have a concrete reality and a verifiable, independent existence… For most of the twentieth century inward-looking approaches, whether symbolist, surrealist or abstract, never really took hold.”2

John’s work is different. He was a groundbreaking artist. He was one of the first Australian photographers to create musical tone-poems – not traditional photo-essays as for magazines, but spiritual expositions about Self. In his internal meditation upon subject matter his concern was for the ‘felt’ landscape. He sought to express his relationship with the earth, air and water, aware of the contradictions in contemporary settler relations with the land. His photographs are not about the ‘when’ or ‘where’ but about a feeling in relation to the land, the spirit and the universe.

In this sense (that the photograph is always written by the photographer), these are photographs of the mind as much as they are of the landscape. John exposes himself as much as the landscape he is photographing. This is his spirit in relation to the land, to the cosmos, even. Like Monet’s paintings of water lilies these photographs are a “small dreaming” of his spirit with a section of the land and not necessarily, as in Aboriginal art, a dreaming and connection to the whole land. His photographs are photographs of the imagination as much as they are of place, rid of ego and become just the world. He created visions that placed the individual in harmony with the earth and in the process became not just a citizen of Australia but also a citizen of the world.

In this transformative act the artist not only awakens the reasoning mind but more importantly the soul. This is what John’s work does; it awakens the soul. His Alcheringa, his dreaming (for that is what Alcheringa means), was to pursue poetic truth in the world and it is his “gift” to us, to those that remain looking at his work. John commented that he would rather have questions than answers – I’m sure he would want to say that, and he would want to believe it – but it is my feeling that very deep down he was searching for the more beautiful answer – rather than just the beautiful question.

A very good friend of mine asked me recently whether I thought that John Cato was a great photographer. I have been thinking about that question ever since and my answer is this: he was a great photographer, one of Australia’s greatest, a great teacher and together with the sparkly-eyed Dawn, a wonderful human being. One measure of a photographer’s greatness is the amount of time he is prepared to spend helping others, and John spent a lot of time imparting his hard-earned wisdom.

As an artist, John has for too long been ignored by notable institutions that cannot accept the wonder in his work. There is an inexplicable coolness toward John and guardedness when talking about his work, as though people are afraid of saying anything about it at all. Well, let me say it for them: John’s work is magnificent. It is to the great credit of the people who have organised this exhibition and the publication of this book that finally, John might start to get the recognition he so strongly deserves.

John Cato unquestionably deserves a place in the pantheon of significant and influential Australian photographers for he is right up there with the very best of them. May the cosmos bless him.

© Dr Marcus Bunyan
August 2013



  1. James McArdle email to the author 28th July 2013
  2. Ennis, Helen. “Introduction,” in Ennis, Helen. Photography and Australia. London: Reaktion Books, 2007, p. 9.



Installation photograph of the exhibition 'John Cato Retrospective' at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat

Installation photograph of the exhibition 'John Cato Retrospective' at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat

Installation photograph of the exhibition 'John Cato Retrospective' at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat

Installation photograph of the exhibition 'John Cato Retrospective' at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat

Installation photograph of the exhibition 'John Cato Retrospective' at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat


Installation photographs of John Cato Retrospective at the Mining Exchange, Ballarat
Photographs by Marcus Bunyan
© Marcus Bunyan, John Cato family and Ballarat International Foto Biennale


John Cato book cover


John Cato Retrospective book cover

Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.



Ballarat International Foto Biennale
12 Lydiard St North, Ballarat 3350

Ballarat International Foto Biennale website


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Vale Dr John Cato (1926-2011)

February 2011


It is with much sadness that I note the death of respected Australian photographer and teacher Dr John Cato (1926-2011). Son of Australian photographer Jack Cato, who wrote one of the first histories of Australian photography (The Story of the Camera in Australia (1955)), John was apprentice to his father before setting up a commercial studio with Athol Shmith that ran from 1950-1971. Dr Cato then joined Shmith at the fledgling Prahran College of Advanced Education photography course in 1974, becoming head of the course when Shmith retired in 1979, a position he held until John retired in 1991.

I was fortunate enough to get to know John and his vivacious wife Dawn. I worked with him and co-curatored his retrospective with William Heimerman, ‘…and his forms were without number’ at The Photographers’ Gallery, South Yarra, in 2002. My catalogue essay from this exhibition is reproduced below.

John was always generous with his time and advice. His photographs are sensitive, lyrical renditions of the Australian landscape. He had a wonderful ear for the land and for the word, a musical lyricism that was unusual in Australian photographers of the early 1970s. He understood how a person from European background could have connection to this land, this Australia, without being afraid to express this sense of belonging; he also imaged an Aboriginal philosophy (that all spirits have a physical presence and everything physical has a spiritual presence) tapping into one of the major themes of his personal work: the mirror held up to reveal an’other’ world – the language of ambiguity and ambivalence (the dichotomy of opposites e.g. black / white, masculine / feminine) speaking through the photographic print.

His contribution to the art of photography in Australia is outstanding. What are the precedents for a visual essay in Australian photography before John Cato? I ask the reader to consider this question.

It would be fantastic if the National Gallery of Victoria could organise a large exhibition and publication of his work, gathering photographs from collections across the land, much like the successful retrospective of the work of John Davis held in 2010. Cato’s work needs a greater appreciation throughout Australia because of it’s seminal nature, containing as it does the seeds of later development for Australian photographers. His educational contribution to the development of photography as an art form within Australia should also be acknowledged in separate essays for his influence was immense. His life, his teaching and his work deserves nothing less.

Dr Marcus Bunyan


‘… and his forms were without number’

John Cato: A Retrospective of the Photographic Work 1971-1991

This writing on the photographic work of Dr John Cato from 1971-1991 is the catalogue essay to a retrospective of his work held at The Photographers’ Gallery in Prahran, Melbourne in 2002. Dr Cato forged his voice as a photographic artist in the early 1970s when photography was just starting to be taken seriously as an art form in Australia. He was a pioneer in the field, and became an educator in art photography. He is respected as one of Australia’s preeminent photographers of the last century.


With the arrival of ‘The New Photography’1 from Europe in the early 1930’s, the formalist style of Modernism was increasingly adopted by photographers who sought to express through photography the new spirit of the age. In the formal construction of the images, the abstract geometry, the unusual camera angles and the use of strong lighting, the representation ‘of the thing in itself’2 was of prime importance. Subject matter often emphasised the monumentality of the factory, machine or body/landscape. The connection of the photographer with the object photographed was usually one of sensitivity and awareness to an external relationship that resulted in a formalist beauty.

Following the upheaval and devastation of the Second World War, photography in Australia was influenced by the ‘Documentary’ style. This “came to be understood as involved chiefly with creating aesthetic experiences … associated with investigation of the social and political environment.”3 This new movement of social realism, “… a human record intimately bound with a moment of perception,”4 was not dissimilar to Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ (images a la sauvette) where existence and essence are in balance.5

The culmination of the ‘Documentary’ style of photography was The Family of Man exhibition curated by Edward Steichen that toured Australia in 1959.6 This exhibition, seen many times by John Cato,7 had a theme of optimism in the unity and dignity of man. The structure of the images in ‘Documentary’ photography echoed those of the earlier ‘New Photography’.

Max Dupain “stressed the objective, impersonal and scientific character of the camera; the photographer could reveal truth by his prerogative of selection.”8 This may have been an objective truth, an external vocalising of a vision that concerned itself more with exterior influences rather than an internal meditation upon the subject matter.


John Cato. 'Untitled' from the series 'Essay I, Landscapes in a Figure' 1971-1979


John Cato (Australian, 1926-2011)
Untitled from the series Essay I, Landscapes in a Figure
Silver gelatin photograph



In 1971, John Cato’s personal photographic work was exhibited for the first time as part of the group show Frontiers at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.9 Earth Song emerged into an environment of social upheaval inflamed by Australian involvement in the Vietnam War. It provided a group of enthusiastic people who were beginning to be interested in photography as art, an opportunity to see the world, and photography, through a different lens. The 52 colour photographic prints in Earth Song, were shown in a sequence that used melodic line and symphonic form as its metaphoric basis, standing both as individual photographs and as part of a total concept.10

In the intensity of the holistic vision, in the connection to the subconscious, the images elucidate the photographers’ search for a perception of the world. This involved an attainment of a receptive state that allowed the cracks, creases and angles inherent in the blank slate of creation to become meaningful. The sequence contained images that can be seen as ‘acts of revelation’,11confirmed and expanded by supporting photographs, and they unearthed a new vocabulary for the discussion of spiritual and political issues by the viewer. They may be seen as a metaphor for life.

The use of sequence, internal meditation and ‘revelation’, although not revolutionary in world terms,12 were perhaps unique in the history of Australian photography at that time. During the production of Earth Song, John Cato was still running a commercial studio in partnership with the photographer Athol Shmith and much of his early personal work was undertaken during holidays and spare time away from the studio. Eventually he abandoned being a commercial photographer in favour of a new career as an educator, but found this left him with even less time to pursue his personal work.13

Earth Song (1970-1971) was followed by the black and white sequences:


Tree – A Journey 18 images 1971-1973
Petroglyphs 14 images 1971-1973
Seawind 14 images 1971-1975
Proteus 18 images 1974-1977
Waterway 16 images 1974-1979


Together they form the extensive series Essay I, Landscapes in a Figure, parts of which are held in the permanent photography collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.14


John Cato. 'Untitled' from the series 'Essay I, Landscapes in a Figure' 1971-1979


John Cato (Australian, 1926-2011)
Untitled from the series Essay I, Landscapes in a Figure
Silver gelatin photograph



The inspiration for Essay I and later personal work came from many sources. An indebtedness to his father, the photographer Jack Cato, is gratefully acknowledged. Cato also acknowledges the influence of literature: William Shakespeare (especially the Sonnets, and As You Like It), William Blake, Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass), Lewis Carroll (Through the Looking Glass), the Bible; and of music (symphonic form), the mythology of the Dreamtime and Aboriginal rock paintings.15 Each body of work in Essay I was based on an expression of nature, the elements and the Creation. They can be seen as Equivalents16 of his most profound life experiences, his life philosophy illuminated in physical form.

John Cato was able to develop the vocabulary of his own inner landscape while leaving the interpretation of this landscape open to the imagination of the viewer. Seeing himself as a photographer rather than an artist, he used the camera as a tool to mediate between what he saw in his mind’s eye, the subjects he photographed and the surface of the photographic negative.17 Photographing ‘in attention’, much as recommended by the teacher and philosopher Krishnamurti,18 he hoped for a circular connection between the photographer and the subject photographed. He then looked for verification of this connection in the negative and, eventually, in the final print.

Essay II, Figures in a Landscape, had already been started before the completion of Essay I and it consists of three black and white sequences:


Alcheringa 11 images 1978-1981
Broken Spears 11 images 1978-1983
Mantracks 22 images in pairs 1978-1983


The photographs in Essay II seem to express “the sublimation of Aboriginal culture by Europeans”19 and, as such, are of a more political nature. Although this is not obvious in the photographs of Alcheringa, the images in this sequence celebrating the duality of reality and reflection, substance and shadow, it is more insistent in the symbology of Broken Spears and Mantracks. Using the metaphor of the fence post (white man / black man in Broken Spears) and contrasting Aboriginal and European ‘sacred’ sites (in pairs of images in Mantracks), John Cato comments on the destruction of a culture and spirit that had existed for thousands of years living in harmony with the land.

In his imaging of an Aboriginal philosophy (that all spirits have a physical presence and everything physical has a spiritual presence) he again tapped one of the major themes of his personal work: the mirror held up to reveal an’other’ world. Cato saw that even as they are part of the whole, the duality of positive / negative, black / white, masculine / feminine are always in conflict.20 In the exploration of the conceptual richness buried within the dichotomy of opposites, Cato sought to enunciate the language of ambiguity and ambivalence,21 speaking through the photographic print.

The theme of duality was further expanded in his last main body of work, Double Concerto: An Essay in Fiction:


Double Concerto (Pat Noone) 30 images 1984-1990
Double Concerto (Chris Noone) 19 images 1985-1991


Double Concerto may be seen as a critique of the power of witness and John Cato created two ‘other’ personas, Pat Noone and Chris Noone, to visualise alternative conditions within himself. The Essay explored the idea that if you send two people to the same location they will take photographs that are completely different from each other, that tell a distinct story about the location and their self:

“For the truth of the matter is that people have mixed feelings and confused opinions and are subject to contradictory expectations and outcomes, in every sphere of experience.”22

This slightly schizophrenic confusion between the two witnesses is further highlighted by Pat Noone using single black and white images in sequence. Chris Noone, on the other hand, uses multiple colour images joined together to form panoramic landscapes that feature two opposing horizons. The use of colour imagery in Double Concerto, with its link to the colour work of Earth Song, can be seen to mark the closing of the circle in terms of John Cato’s personal work. In Another Way of Telling, John Berger states that …

“Photography, unlike drawing, does not possess a language. The photographic image is produced instantaneously by the reflection of light; its figuration is not impregnated by experience or consciousness.”23

But in the personal work of John Cato it is a reflection of the psyche, not of light, that allows a consciousness to be present in the figuration of the photographic prints. The personal work is an expression of his self, his experience, his story and t(his) language, is our language, if we allow our imagination to speak.

Dr Marcus Bunyan 2002



1 @ Newton, Gael. Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Sydney: Australian National Gallery, William Collins, 1988, p. 109.
2 @ Newton, Gael. Max Dupain. Sydney: David Ell Press,1980, p. 34.
3 @ Ibid., p. 32.
4 @ Greenough, Sarah (et al). On the Art of Fixing a Shadow: 150 Years of Photography. Boston: National Gallery of Art, Bullfinch Press, 1989, p. 256.
5 @ Ibid., p. 256.
6 @ Newton, Gael. Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Sydney: Australian National Gallery, William Collins, 1988, p. 131.
7 @ Ibid., p. 131.
8 @ Newton, Gael. Max Dupain. Sydney: David Ell Press, 1980, p. 32.
9 @ Only the second exhibition by Australian photographers at the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
10 @ Shmith, Athol. Light Vision No.1. Melbourne: Jean-Marc Le Pechoux (editor and publisher), Sept 1977, p. 21.
11 @ Berger, John and Mohr, Jean. Another Way of Telling. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982, p. 118.
12 @ Hall, James Baker. Minor White: Rites and Passages. New York: Aperture, 1978.
13 @ Conversation with the photographer 29/01/1997, Melbourne, Victoria.
14 @ Newton, Gael. Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Sydney: Australian National Gallery, William Collins, 1988, p. 135, Footnote 7; p. 149.
15 @ Conversation with the photographer 22/01/1997, Melbourne, Victoria.
16 @ Norman, Dorothy. Alfred Stieglitz. New York: Aperture, 1976, p. 5.
17 @ Ibid.,
18 @ Krishnamurti. Beginnings of Learning. London: Penguin, 1975, p. 131.
19 @ Strong, Geoff. Review. The Age. Melbourne, 28/04/1982.
20 @ Conversation with the photographer 22/01/1997, Melbourne, Victoria.
21 @ The principal definition for ambiguity in Websters Third New International Dictionary is:

“admitting of two or more meanings … referring to two or more things at the same time.” That for ambivalence is “contradictory and oscillating subjective states.”

Quoted in Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture and Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 21.

22 @ Levine, Donald. The Flight From Ambiguity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.
23 @ Berger, John and Mohr, Jean. Another Way of Telling. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982, p. 95.




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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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