Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Kauffmann (1864–1942)

by Suzanne Edgar and Gael Newton

This article was published:

John Kauffmann (1864-1942), photographer, was born on 29 December 1864 at Truro, South Australia, second son of Alexander Kauffmann, merchant, and his wife Therese, née Victorsen; theirs was an orthodox Jewish household. At 17 Kauffmann was articled to the architect John H. Grainger, father of Percy; in 1886 he attended H. P. Gill's classes at the Art Gallery of South Australia's school of design. Next year he went to England, and abandoned architecture for chemistry. In Zurich in 1890-93 he studied chemistry at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He was fascinated by new photographic reproduction processes such as photogravure, worked in a Viennese portrait studio and studied zinc etching and the collotype process in Bavaria. In about 1896 he spent a year at the Vienna Imperial Technical and Research Institution for Photography and Reproduction Processes.

In 1897 Kauffmann returned to Adelaide and appears to have imparted the ideals of a European pictorial style of art photography to the South Australian Photographic Society. He exhibited enlargements on pearl bromide paper in Adelaide and Sydney in 1897; a critic found his 1898 show 'exquisite in the delicacy and gradation of the tones, giving a depth and softness'. Next year Kauffmann won prizes at the Photographic Society of New South Wales's intercolonial exhibition. He continued showing his impressionistic work in Adelaide and in London where it won silver medals. Kauffmann's trademark became soft focus. He was one of the leading Australian exponents of the 'pictorialist' style in which the camera's lens was opened up to focus on the subject's chief feature while inessential details were diffused. Harold Cazneaux was inspired by Kauffmann.

In 1909 he moved to Melbourne and, later, a studio in Collins Street. Next year the Photographic Association of Victoria mounted its first one-man show of seventy-four of his photographs. Kauffmann's status rose in 1914 when his influential second one-man show in Melbourne was repeated in Sydney. Critics preferred his naturalistic approach to the extremists of 'the fuzzy-wuzzy school'. His best work was done with gums and tea-trees near Healesville.

In 1919 a monograph, The Art of John Kauffmann, appeared containing twenty landscapes and urban scenes and an essay by Leslie H. Beer. But low-key tonal Impressionism was becoming unpopular. Kauffmann was sometimes criticized for artificiality and 'fakery', implying a manipulation of the prints; photographers were adopting a style truer to Australian sunlight. Although he illustrated a book on the Sunraysia district in 1920, and contributed to a Sydney Ure Smith book on Melbourne in 1931, he felt bitter that by 1934 his romantic treatment was considered dated. Possibly due to poor eyesight, he now made close-up studies of Australian flora which were bold and modern in composition and unusual as subjects at that time. In 1936, old and sick, he gave up his studio, but continued to paint and play the violin.

Kauffmann was a shy man, and frugal, but his style was that of an aesthete and a Bohemian. He 'was usually off to an art exhibition, a chamber music recital, or an alfresco lunch in the Botanical Gardens' with artist friends, including Septimus Power. Known as Jack, he was attractive to women and dressed with yellow gloves, cane, spats and pince-nez on a silk cord.

Kauffmann was living at his sister's South Yarra boarding-house when he died, unmarried, on 29 November 1942. After a service at the Chevra Kadisha, Carlton, he was buried in Fawkner cemetery. The National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, holds eighty-eight of his photographs.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Newton, Silver and Grey: Fifty Years of Australian Photography (Syd, 1980)
  • J. Mollison and L. Murray (eds), The Australian National Gallery (Canb, 1982)
  • G. Newton, ‘John Kauffmann 1864-1942 art photographer’, A'sian Antique Collector, 1980, p 114
  • private information.

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar and Gael Newton, 'Kauffmann, John (1864–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 19 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 December, 1864
Truro, South Australia, Australia


29 November, 1942 (aged 77)
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.