In The Story of the Camera in Australia, Jack Cato writes that Bernice Agar, ‘for over a decade held first place for her beautiful portraits of society women. When she married and retired, the leading camera men of this country breathed a sigh of relief’ (136). With her strong frontal lighting and unusual posing of subjects, Bernice Agar was at the vanguard of stylish society photos in interwar Australia. She also photographed women artists, such as Thea Proctor, and the opera singer Clara Butt. The sitters in her portraits were worldly, sophisticated women, who displayed impeccable taste when it came to clothes and coiffure.
In line with methods adopted by women photographers in the UK, Agar would invite society figures to pose for her, providing them with free prints and selling the images to magazines, a practice also adopted by the Australian portrait photographers May and Mina Moore. Many of her images were published in Society and The Home.
Agar’s oeuvre suggests how ‘golden era’ society photography might have evolved into early fashion photography in Australia. The critic Halla Beloff dryly notes that women have played a prominent role in every genre of photography except fashion photography; but Beloff was viewing mainly North American and British photography when she made this assessment. Does the view apply to Australian photographic history?
The relation between society portraiture and fashion photography is ambiguous and varies depending on local context. In Australia, newspapers and periodicals in which such society-fashion images were published preceded (by a long interval) the magazines that focussed exclusively on fashion, such as Vogue Australia and Flair, which only emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. The Australian Women Weekly, which naturally had a different editorial focus, was nonetheless a key fashion publication prior to Vogue – but AWW had only been in circulation from 1933. Publications such as Society and The Home might have cultivated a desire in the Australian public for images of glamorous women in beautiful couture.
The alluring image above is a wedding photograph of Carla Vera Jacques (née Dibbs). The Sydney press reported on the society wedding, noting that:
the wedding dress was a recently arrived Paris evening model of supple oxidised silver tissue with a skirt (jupe) with front panels and side draps of d’argent dentelle while the corsage consisted of a simple deep band of tissue, with sleeves of silver tulle held by should straps of tiny silver roses.
The breathless attention to detail of the dress is fetishistic, expressing the novelty of the costume while emphasising its socially correct origins as a recent arrival from the ultimate fashion authority, Paris. The commodity fetishism expressed in this 1919 journalism anticipates more recent examples of fashion writing.
When it comes to fashion photography in Australia, the names Helmut Newton, Athol Shmith and Henry Talbot are likely to come to mind – but what came before, and what else was happening outside of the mainstream publications? These questions link to a much richer story, and there is currently exciting scholarship in this field. The research of Margaret Maynard, for instance, is breaking new paths in uncovering the history of fashion, and its photography, in Australia.
In the meantime, head over to Sydney Living Museums’ splendid new website for more information and great images. The Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (part of Sydney Living Museums) holds two Bernice Agar photographs, as well as many other great links to its wide-format collection. If you live in Sydney, why not visit in person to view the collection? It includes architectural pattern books, architectural fragments, wall and floor coverings, manufacturers’ trade catalogues and sample books, garden ornament, fittings (including curtain and blind hardware, door and window furniture), soft furnishings and trimmings, personal papers and manuscripts, pictures, photographs, books, periodicals and oral histories.
Thanks to Sydney Living Museums for permission to reproduce this fabulous photograph. Find more at: http://sydneylivingmuseums.com.au