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Australian art


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While the billy boils



Harold Cazneaux

New Zealand, Australia

30 Mar 1878 - 19 Jun 1953


While the billy boils depicts the quintessentially Australian scene of a labourer resting on his swag, while making tea over a campfire. This photograph has been resolved through the carbon printing process which was less susceptible to aging than contemporaneous printing technologies. In the case of this picture, red toned carbon tissue was bathed in potassium dichromate and then held against the glass plate negative. The plate was exposed and the imprint resolved onto the carbon paper. The carbon paper was then placed on a more solid backing 1. Cazneaux appears to have intervened further in the printing making process. The subject is in sharp definition: the contours of his linen shirt and the pin stripe of his trousers, clearly evident. Conversely, the smoke coming from his relatively modest fire has been retouched so as to almost completely obscure the foliage and rocks behind its skyward ascent.
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 1. 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. Peres M R 2007, ‘The Focal Encyclopaedia of Photography’, Focal Press, Amsterdam p 59
2. Newton G 1988, ‘Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988’, Australian National Gallery, Canberra p 85


Other Title

Billy meditation



Media category


Materials used

carbon photograph, red tone


9.8 x 13.3 cm image/sheet; 28.3 x 25.3 cm card

Signature & date

Signed and dated l.c. card, ink "HC/ 1908".


Gift of the Cazneaux family 1975


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Harold Cazneaux

Works in the collection


Shown in 1 exhibition

Exhibition history

  • Harold Cazneaux, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 22 Dec 1989–11 Mar 1990

Referenced in 1 publication