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Australian art


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The Humorist (Spencer Shier)

circa 1920


Harold Cazneaux

New Zealand, Australia

30 Mar 1878 - 19 Jun 1953


Spencer Shier was a commercial portraitist who specialised in the photography of prominent public personalities, including politicians, actors and society figures. He was born in 1884 and died of heart failure in 1946 at his home in Melbourne 1. Many of his portraits are held by the National Library of Australia. Both Cazneaux and Shier photographed the celebrated Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova on her 1926 visit to Australia. Cazneaux’s portrait of Shier is conventional in all but one respect. Shier sits against a amorphous backdrop, smartly dressed in a three-piece suit, wing collar and black tie. Yet, as the title of the picture suggests, both Cazneaux and Shier are mocking the rigidity and formality of the portrait process through the inclusion of the rotund laughing Buddha in the frame.

Harold Cazneaux was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1878. His parents, Pierce Mott Cazneau and Emma Florence (née Bentley) worked in commercial studios in New Zealand before returning to settle permanently in Adelaide during the early 1890s. At the age of 18 Cazneaux went to work alongside his father at Hammer & Co studio as a retoucher. He moved to Sydney in 1904 to join the larger portrait firm, Freeman’s quickly ascending to the position of ‘chief operator’ (as camera portraitists were known). Studio work was highly formulaic, with little scope for creativity. Cazneaux used his time walking to and from work to experiment with pictorialist aesthetics 2. The Photographic Society of New South Wales organised an exhibition of Cazneaux’s photographs in 1909, the first such solo exhibition of its kind in Australia. In 1916 he and fellow pictorialist photographer, Cecil Bostock founded the Sydney Camera Circle. The group was particularly interested in the how pictorialism could be adapted to and extended within an Australian context. The mechanised, standardised and frenetic pace of Freeman’s increasingly took its toll on Cazneaux’s creativity and health, and he resigned in 1917. He moved with his wife and daughters to the Sydney suburb of Roseville, and in 1920 he was employed as the official photographer for The Home magazine. This new position let him work in a varied indoor and outdoor environments. In 1938 Cazneaux was awarded an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society of London. He continued to work until his death in 1953.
1. Obituary, ‘The Argus’, 16 May 1946 p 3
2. Newton G 1988, ‘Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988’, Australian National Gallery, Canberra p 85



circa 1920

Media category


Materials used

gelatin silver photograph, toned


29.6 x 22.3 cm image/sheet

Signature & date

Signed c. verso original card, pencil ".../ H Cazneaux/ ...". Not dated.


Gift of the Cazneaux family 2000


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Harold Cazneaux

Works in the collection


Shown in 2 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 1 publication


Josef Lebovic Gallery (Organiser), Special Collectors List no. 60A, Sydney, 1996. 19