Considered one of the world’s great industrial and architectural photographers, Wolfgang Sievers (1913-2007), a student of Bauhaus, fled Nazi Germany for Australia at the outbreak of WWII. In 1939 he opened his photographic studio in Melbourne and became one of Australia’s most renowned photographers with his work collected here and internationally.
When he died in 2007 he bequeathed his print archive to Human Rights lawyer and advocate Julian Burnside QC, with all proceeds from the sale of these works going to the pursuit of human rights. His final public speech, which consisted entirely of three words, encapsulated his desire for humanity: “One word. Compassion”.
Burnside told me that his association with Sievers began around 2003 when he was approached to buy a collection of 92 framed photographs. “I didn’t know him personally, although he had written to me in the past about refugees. I knew his work of course…I bought the entire collection sight unseen. Galleries around the country had formed committees to consider the purchase, and I’d just said yes. Wolfgang was very amused by that, he liked my instant decision-making,” he laughs.
The pair struck up a friendship and before he died Sievers gave Burnside his collection of prints to use as he saw fit in order to benefit human rights causes. “He drove around to my place one day and delivered all of these boxes, about 14 of them”. Inside one box was a print of his now famous “Gears” photograph with a Post It note saying ‘this is the best print of this photograph ever’. Sievers was an absolute perfectionist, and the significance of this handwritten note is not lost on Burnside who is holding back that photograph in the hope that it will command a high price. “I won’t take less that $50,000 for that one,” he says.
Burnside believes the popularity of Sievers work, which has increased posthumously, is “partly because people with the right money can see the quality of the work and know that there won’t be anymore around. Also people do respond to the fact that proceeds go to human rights causes and not into someone’s pocket”.
An exhibition of 51 photographs taken by Sievers between 1933 and 1977 is on show in Melbourne presented by Liberty Victoria.
A Selection of Works by Wolfgang Sievers
25 March to 5 April, 2014
45 Flinders Lane