Swagman on the road to Wilcannia, New South Wales
England, Australia, England
12 Dec 1906 - 05 Feb 1986
Inspired by American rural photographs taken for the Farm Security Administration from 1937, as well as the earlier realism of new photography portraiture, Axel Poignant consciously expressed what he had to say about the subject through documentary photography. Poignant had journeyed extensively through remote areas of Australia, independently and on assignment, and undoubtedly empathised with the ‘swagman’. This image resonates with the mythology of national identity which focused on the outback, embedded in the national psyche by Banjo Paterson’s unofficial anthem ‘Waltzing Matilda’: the independent spirit facing adversity. The swag – also known as the ‘matilda’ – of rolled up blankets, was an essential item carried by itinerant workers when walking the long roads of Australia and sleeping out. Poignant recalled meeting the swagman:
The bike had no chain or pedals. He used it to carry his worldly goods – tent fly, pots and pans, tucker and water and also some books. He gave his name as George Meredith and he was making his way from Paroo to Menindie which he expected to reach months later. He didn’t go to ‘The Hill’ [Broken Hill] anymore. It was too far. We met up with him just past the Springfield Tank. 1
The photograph captures the self-reliance and dignity of a figure with the pathos of a Charlie Chaplin character. Taken from a high angle, the swagman is centrally positioned in the foreground which exaggerates the length of the road leading to a distant horizon. The image suggests that for the lone swagman the journey rather than the destination is his raison d’être as he walks on and away from the photographer.
1. Newton G 1982, ‘Axel Poignant: photographs 1922–1980’, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney/Beaver Press, Sydney
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007
gelatin silver photograph
38.8 x 30.7 cm image; 49.3 x 39.0 cm sheet
Signature & date
Signed and dated l.r. sheet, pencil, "Axel Poignant 1953". Signed l.c. verso, ink "Axel Poignant".
Not on display
Shown in 7 exhibitions
6 Photographers, David Jones' Art Gallery, Sydney, Sydney, 30 May 1955–06 Jun 1955
Three years on: acquisitions 1978-81, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 Oct 1981–01 Dec 1981
Axel Poignant: photographs 1922-1980, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 17 Jul 1982–29 Aug 1982
Seeing is believing - the art in photography, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 13 Dec 1985–19 Jan 1986
Referenced in 8 publications
Natasha Bullock, Australian postwar photodocumentary, Sydney, 2004. no catalogue numbers
Josef Lebovic Gallery and Helen Ennis, Masterpieces of Australian Photography, Twentieth Century Photography, Sydney, 1989, 182, 183 (illus). cat.no. 325
Gael Newton, Edmund Capon and Hal Missingham, Axel Poignant retrospective, Sydney, 1982. cat.no. 74
Gael Newton, Silver and Grey - Fifty Years of Australian Photography 1900-1950, 1980. plate no. 96
Gael Newtown, Three years on: a selection of acquisitions 1978-1981, 'Photography - Australian, European and American', pg. 67-84, Sydney, 1981, 80 (illus.). cat.no. 34
Rose Peel, Photography: Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection, 'Australian postwar photo-documentary', pg.189-207, Sydney, 2007, 194, 201 (illus.).
Ursula Prunster, Seeing is believing: the art in photography, Sydney, 1985. cat.no. 35
Author Unknown, Photography: A Contemporary View, Sydney, 1978, 11.