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Poignant, Harald Emil Axel (1906–1986)

by Joanna Sassoon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Harald Emil Axel Poignant (1906-1986), photographer, was born on 12 December 1906 at Leeds, England, elder child of Axel Jonas Alfred Poignant, a ‘medical gymnast’ from Sweden, and his English-born wife Annie Lake, née Ferraby. Axel attended Grosvenor House School, Harrogate, Yorkshire, until December 1918; he completed his schooling in Sweden and returned to England in 1925. Next year he migrated to Australia under the Dreadnought scheme, arriving in Sydney in the Pakeha in July. He undertook itinerant work in Sydney and country New South Wales. On 21 April 1930 at St Alban’s Liberal Catholic Church, Regent Street, Chippendale, he married Sandra St Lucien Eliot Chase, a kindergarten teacher; the couple moved to Perth.

By 1933 Poignant had a Leica camera and, using social connections of his mother-in-law Muriel Chase, he established a clientele for photographic portraiture. He soon joined the Workers’ Art Guild. In 1934-35 he and Stuart Gore, with whom he shared a studio in London Court, helped to produce an extensive aerial photographic survey of the Western Australian goldfields. Photographs of Karri logging at Pemberton (1935) and of Kalgoorlie mines (1936), and aerial views of the Duke of Gloucester’s arrival in Perth in 1934 and of the Anzac Day dawn service in Perth (1939) were innovative, because of Poignant’s style and choice of angles. From 1935 he extended the range of his work, first to dance and theatre and then, helped by the naturalists Norman Hall and Vincent Serventy, to natural history. In 1941 he exhibited in Perth with his friend Hal Missingham. On a trip along the Canning stock route in 1942, he took images that, in retrospect, were seen as marking a change in the portrayal of Aborigines.

Poignant was naturalised on 8 July 1942. Having been divorced in 1941, on 27 July 1942 at the district registrar’s office, Perth, he married Ruth Marjorie Pettersen, a clerk. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in March 1943 and was based from September in the Land Headquarters Electrical and Mechanical Engineering School, Ingleburn, Sydney. Discharged in September 1945, he was employed as a cameraman on Harry Watt’s film The Overlanders and probably on Indonesia Calling, a short film sponsored by the Waterside Workers’ Federation of Australia in 1946. Next year he won a gold medal at the Newcastle and Hunter Valley’s 150th anniversary exhibition of photography. In 1947-52 he was a cinematographer with the Commonwealth Film Unit; he worked on Namatjira the Painter (1947). He published his first book, Bush Animals of Australia, in 1949.

A sensitive portraitist and a master of visual narrative, Poignant photographed life on the Hawkesbury River in 1951. Depicting the relationships between people and the land, his photographs can be interpreted as either perpetuating a romantic notion of Australia or challenging the dominant racial stereotypes at the time. His most significant work was a record of traditional Aboriginal life in Arnhem Land in 1952. Independent of government aegis, he took about 2500 photographs of the daily activities and ceremonies of the families living on the west bank of the Liverpool River and on Millingimbi Island. A selection of these photographs was included in the exhibition, Six Photographers (Sydney, 1955); some appeared in Poignant’s Piccanniny Walkabout (1957), which won Australian Children’s Picture Book of the Year in 1958, and some in F. D. McCarthy’s Australia’s Aborigines (1957). In 1953 in western New South Wales, he took his well-known image ‘Australian Swagman’.

Widowed in 1953, Poignant married Roslyn Betty Izatt, a film technician, on 24 October that year at the registrar-general’s office, Sydney. In 1956 the couple moved to England, where Poignant worked as a freelance photographic journalist for the British Broadcasting Corporation, various British newspapers and Life magazine. He documented the international success of Australian artists, including Charles Blackman and Brett Whiteley, and in 1962 photographed the Royal Ballet’s production of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, with sets by (Sir) Sidney Nolan. Poignant returned to Australia only occasionally, but produced The Improbable Kangaroo, and Other Australian Animals (1965). Other photographic narratives for children resulted from travels in the Pacific Islands and in Papua New Guinea: Kaleku (1972), and Children of Oropiro (1976).

In 1980 Poignant’s photographs were included in the Royal Anthropological Institute’s exhibition, Observers of Man, in London. A retrospective showing of Poignant’s work was held at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1982. His work also appeared in Aspects of Perth Modernism 1929-1942, an exhibition held at the University of Western Australia in 1986. Survived by his wife, Poignant died on 5 February 1986 in his home at Lewisham, London. He had no children. The National Library of Australia, Canberra, and the art galleries of Western Australia and New South Wales hold collections of Poignant’s photographs. In 2007 the Art Gallery of New South Wales held an exhibition of his work, Indigenous Connections.

Select Bibliography

  • Axel Poignant, Photographs 1922-1980 (1982)
  • D. Bromfield (ed), Aspects of Perth Modernism, 1929-1942 (1986)
  • A. and R. Poignant, Mangrove Creek 1951 (1993)
  • R. Poignant, Encounter at Nagalarramba (1996)
  • Australian, 24-25 July 1982, p 14, 22-23 Feb 1986, ‘Weekend Mag’, p 18
  • Times (London), 7 Feb 1986, p 14
  • A435, item 1948/4/3076, B883, item WX38149, A6119, item 3691 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Poignant papers (National Library of Australia and State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Joanna Sassoon, 'Poignant, Harald Emil Axel (1906–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/poignant-harald-emil-axel-15467/text26683, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 August 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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