Skip to content

Update from the Gallery regarding COVID-19

The Art Gallery of New South Wales is open. We are observing strict physical distancing and hygiene measures to protect the health of visitors and staff and minimise the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus). Read the latest visit information




Australian art


View More:



circa 1938


Cecil Bostock


1884 - 1939


Bostock remains an enigmatic personality in Australian pictorial and early modernist photography. This is at least in part due to his body of work being scattered on his death in 1939 as it was auctioned to cover his debts. Fortunately ‘Phenomena’ was left to his former assistant Max Dupain who had worked with him from 1930 to 1933. Dupain later wrote: ‘I spent three years with this very thorough craftsman and the study of his exacting and original methods formed a solid background for my future work and development. It was a tortuous experience for such a sensitive fresher.’1

Bostock was a founding member of the Sydney Camera Circle in 1916. He became a member of the Royal Photographic Society in London while overseas on war service and on his return to Sydney in 1920 he set up as a photographer specialising in photographic work for advertising and industry. He was also a skilled craftsman in bookbinding (as his father had been). He edited and designed the catalogues for his fellow pictorialists and remained a member of the Camera Circle until the end of 1935. However, he was always somewhat eccentric in his photography in comparison to the dominant soft-focus style. His work was usually more direct and his interest in form and abstraction was clear from the early 1930s. He joined the independent Contemporary Camera Groupe and exhibited with them in 1938. He also supported Dupain in his early experimentation.

‘Phenomena’ was one of 11 photographs Bostock exhibited with the Contemporary Camera Groupe and it was placed in the window at David Jones along with other photographs such as ‘Plum blossom’ 1937 by Olive Cotton and ‘Mechanisation of art’ by Laurence Le Guay. ‘Phenomena’ is a wonderful modernist work with its plays of light and dark and disorienting shapes and curving lines. It is impossible to tell exactly how the shapes are made or where the light is coming from, nor what the objects are. It could easily be exhibited upside down 2 where the viewer could be looking down on objects arranged on a flat surface. ‘Phenomena’ is a tribute to Bostock’s restless, inventive and exacting abilities.

1. Newton G 1980, ‘Max Dupain’, David Ell Press, Sydney p 20
2. As it appears in Newton G 1988, op cit p 112, but from the signature and notations on the back of this print it is most likely that the work should be seen as reproduced here, where it is much more difficult to comprehend the shapes

© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007



circa 1938

Media category


Materials used

gelatin silver photograph


26.3 x 30.5 cm image/sheet

Signature & date

Signed c. verso, ink "Cecil W Bostock". Not dated.


Gift of Max Dupain 1980


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Cecil Bostock

Works in the collection


Shown in 13 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 12 publications


Judy Annear, Photography: Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection, 'Australian modernism', pg.131-149, Sydney, 2007, frontispiece (illus.), 144 (illus.).

Natasha Bullock (Curator), Soft shadows and sharp lines: Australian photography from Cazneaux to Dupain, Sydney, 2002. no pagination or catalogue numbers

Vigen Galstyan, Look, 'Infinite flatness: exploring the intangible', pg. 28-29, Sydney, Oct 2012, 29.

Ewen McDonald, AGNSW Collections, 'From Colonialism to late Modernism', pg. 7-106, Sydney, 1994, 40 (illus.).

Robert McFarlane, Critic's Choice, Sydney, 1994.

Melissa Miles, The Language of Light and Dark, ‘Painting with Light: Abstract Visions’, pg. 161-214, Australia, 2015, 171, 173 (illus.). fig. 4.8

Denise Mimmocchi, Sydney moderns: art for a new world, 'Still-life as laboratory table', pg.198-213, Sydney, 2013, 203, 212 (illus.).

Gael Newton, Silver and Grey - Fifty Years of Australian Photography 1900-1950, 1980. plate no. 60

Gael Newtown, Three years on: a selection of acquisitions 1978-1981, 'Photography - Australian, European and American', pg. 67-84, Sydney, 1981, 72 (illus.). 12

Ursula Prunster., Seeing is believing: the art in photography, 'Seeing is believing: the art of photography', Sydney, 1985. 3

S.H. Ervin Gallery, The Thirties and Australia, Sydney, 1980, 18. 107

Donald Williams, In our own image: the story of Australian art, 'The Modern Artist 1913-1940', pg.89-115, Sydney, 2002, 108 (illus.).