The son of an art historian, Wolfgang Georg Sievers (1913-2007) was born in Berlin and educated at the Emperor Frederick Gymnasium and other schools in Berlin. He acquired his first camera in 1928 and took many photographs on holidays in France and Italy. He hoped to become an archaeologist, but in 1933 Nazi racial laws forced him to leave university. He turned to photography instead. He worked in Portugal in 1934-35 and then returned to Berlin to study and later teach photography at the Contempora Lehratelier fűr neue Werkkunst. It was there that he imbibed many of the ideas of the Bauhaus School. His mother, who died in 1932, was of Jewish descent and his father had been dismissed from his position in the Foreign Office when the Nazis came to power in 1933. Faced with similar discrimination and possible persecution, Sievers decided to emigrate to Australia in 1938.
Sievers established a photographic studio in Melbourne and undertook industrial, architectural and advertising work. He served in the Australian Army in 1942-46. As his reputation grew, he received many assignments in Europe, Asia, South America and the United States. In 1955, for instance, he photographed the work of the architect Aavo Aalto in Finland. He worked extensively in black and white until the late 1960s. Within Australia the subjects of his photography have included heavy industry and engineering, light industry, the car industry, the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme, mining industry, food industry, the South Australian wine industry, the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, oil industry, textile industry, construction industry, science and research, the University of Melbourne and Monash University, geological exploration, mining and architecture.
Photographs by Sievers have featured in numerous exhibitions, including many organised by the Department of Trade in overseas countries. In 1953 Sievers and Helmut Newton held a major exhibition in Melbourne entitled ‘New Visions in Photography’ and in the following year Sievers had a one man exhibition in Hobart. In 1991-92 a major retrospective exhibition was held in the National Gallery of Australia. Some of his earliest work was shown in an exhibition in memory of his father, held in Berlin in 1992. Another major exhibition of his work was held in Lisbon in 2002. Sievers, who described himself as ‘fiercely Australian but also fiercely European’, was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2003.
The National Library bought several instalments of photographs from Wolfgang Sievers between 1996 and 2001. In March 2002 a contract between Sievers and the Library was signed whereby the Library would purchase his entire photographic archive. It was transferred in 2002-3. Sievers bequeathed to the Library his family portraits, photographs, manuscripts, letters and books and they were received in 2008.
The Sievers Collection consists of about 19,000 prints and 52,000 negatives and transparencies, making it the largest photographic collection held in the Library. They were photographed by Sievers between 1938 and 1991, but there are relatively few images taken before 1950. The majority of the photographs are black and white, but a significant number of those taken after 1970 are in colour. The collection is an extraordinary record of Australian architecture, mining and industry in the second half of the twentieth century.
Between 1946 and 1973 Sievers carried out photographic work for leading architectural firms such as Boyd, Grounds and Romberg, Bates, Smart and McCutcheon, Yuncken, Freeman and Simpson, Buchan, Laird and Buchan, Hassell and McConnell, and Leith and Bartlett. The majority are of modern Melbourne buildings, including some in the process of construction, such as banks, insurance offices, architects’ offices, schools, churches, hospitals, shopping centres, galleries, houses and flats. Specific examples include the National Gallery of Victoria, the Sidney Myer Music Bowl, the Olympic Pool, BHP House, Collins Square, many of the buildings at Monash University, ‘Heide’ (later the Museum of Modern Art), ICI House, Robin Boyd’s ‘House of Tomorrow’ (1949) and The Age ‘Dream Home’ (1955). There are also photographs of older buildings, such as warehouses in Flinders Lane, corrugated iron houses in South Melbourne, neo-classical buildings in St Kilda, the Metropolitan Meat Market, the Federal Hotel, the English, Scottish and Australian Bank, and Newman College, the Capitol Theatre and other buildings designed by Walter Burley Griffin. Buildings photographed by Sievers in other cities include the Miranda shopping centre in Sydney, the Festival Hall in Adelaide, the Wrest Point Hotel in Hobart, the Supreme Court in Canberra, and the Customs House, Casuarina Hospital and new solar housing in Darwin. In addition, there are a few photographs of country houses, such as Eeyeuk Homestead and Werribee Park.
Whereas the architectural photographs were mostly taken in Melbourne, the photographs of mining and associated industries encompass every State of Australia. A few examples are the the Blair Athol and Moura coal mines in Queensland, the Comalco bauxite mine at Weipa, the Conzinc uranium mine at Rum Jungle, Hamersley Iron mines at Dampier and Tom Price, manganese mining at Groote Eylandt, the copper, lead, zinc and silver mines at Mount Isa, the Mount Lyell copper mine, North Broken Hill lead mine, and solar salt mining near Dampier. Other subjects include transportation and export of minerals, Bass Strait oil rigs, the Mobil oil refinery at Altona, the bauxite refinery at Gladstone, the Broken Hill Associated Smelters at Port Pirie, the nickel processing plant at Yabulu, Queensland, and the Electrolytic Zinc Corporation works at Risdon, Tasmania.
The largest category of photographs documents manufacturing and other secondary industries. Among the hundreds of industrial sites in Victoria represented in the collection are the Alcoa plant at Port Henry, Australian Consolidated Industries engineering works at Burwood, the Australian Paper Industries mill at Fairfield, the Babcock and Wilcox powerhouse at Dandenong, the Balm Paints research laboratory at Clayton, the Bruck Mills textile factory at Wangaratta, the Bryant and May match factory at Richmond, the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation plant at Fishermens Bend, the CSR Timbrock factory at Bacchus Marsh, the Dunlop Australia factory at Bayswater, Fibremakers Ltd factory at Bayswater, the Ford Motor Company plants at Broadmeadows and Geelong, General Motors Holden factory at Dandenong, the Pilkington Glass factory at Dandenong, the South Eastern Purification Plant at Carrum, the United Ball Bearing Company factory at Echuca, Vickers Ruwolt engineering works at Burnley, the C.J. Wilson clothing factory at Collingwood and Yallourn power station. Photographs of industrial concerns in other States include the Angoves distillery at Renmark, the Associated Pulp and Paper Mills sawmill and timber areas at Burnie, the British Tube Mills plant in Adelaide, Orlando and Seppeltsfield wineries in the Barossa Valley, and the Pope Industries factory in Adelaide. As well as aerial photographs of factories and power stations and photographs of machinery, for which Sievers is famous, the subjects include finished products, transportation, apprentice training, researchers in laboratories, showrooms and trade exhibitions.
Jorge Calado in Life Line (2000) wrote that ‘For Sievers, industry was beautiful, but goodness resided in the worker’. Whereas other photographers depicted machinery or industrial structures with the workers either missing or merely silhouetted, Sievers followed the Bahaus ideal of celebrating the skill, talent and dignity of the individual worker. In the foreground of many of his photographs of machines, factories and laboratories are men and women at work, including miners, welders, assembly workers, craftsmen, draughtsmen, technicians, scientists, computer operators and managers.
A small number of works in the collection do not fall within the categories of architecture, mining and industry. There is an important group of photographs of Australian Aborigines at the Methodist mission at Weipa in 1957. Sievers disliked portraiture, but there are a few photographic portraits of Australian servicemen in 1939-41 and of managers of manufacturing companies. The collection also contains some photographs that he took in overseas countries, particularly on a visit to Colombia in 1977.
The Sievers Collection contains an important group of family papers, including portraits and photographs, extending from the late seventeenth century to the mid twentieth century. Of particular interest are watercolours, drawings and sketchbooks of Sievers’ grandfather, Carl Sievers, an account of his parents’ journey round the world in 1909-10, memoirs of his father, Johannes Sievers, documents relating to his father’s work in the German Foreign Office in 1918-33, and papers on family history annotated by Johannes Sievers. There are also letters and a large number of family photographs.
There are relatively few papers of Wolfgang Sievers himself. The only records of his photographic work are three job books, covering the period 1938-94. There are also letters, newspaper cuttings and copies of documents relating to war crimes and war criminals in Australia.
There are a number of books, mostly in German, in the collection. Many of them belonged to Johannes Sievers and date from the early nineteenth century onwards. Of particular interest are several fine publications on the architect and designer Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841), including four monographs written by Johannes Sievers.
The Wolfgang Sievers Collection is held in the Pictures Collection. The photographs by Sievers are being individually catalogued and digitised.
The family papers, letters, photographs, drawings and paintings are held in the Manuscript Collection at Acc 08/70. An online finding aid is available online at https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-290948900/findingaid. Most of the publications, including the works on Friedrich Shinkel, have been added to the General Collection.
Another collection of photographs of Wolfgang Sievers is held in the State Library of Victoria.
Ennis, Helen, Sievers: images of Australian industry, National Library of Australia magazine, vol 3 (3), Sept. 2011, pp. 21-27.
Ennis, Helen, Wolfgang Sievers, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2011.
Coslovich, Gabriella, Photographer who championed human rights to the end, The Age, 9 Aug. 2007, p. 3
Freiburg, Freda, Upstaging the history of Australian photography: the case of Wolfgang Sievers, Photofile, vol. 6 (1), autumn 1988, pp. 4-6
Groom, Linda, The dignity of man as a worker: the Sievers Archive, National Library of Australia News, vol. 13 (4), Jan. 2003, pp. 6-10
McFarlane, Robert, Refugee awakened a sleeping giant, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Jan. 1992, p. 50
York, Barry, Oral history interview with Wolfgang Sievers, March 2000, ORAL TRC 4549
First posted 2008 (revised 2019)