State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 65 Autumn 2000


Jack Cato's Melbourne
An interview with John Cato

IN 1996 Jack Cato's son, John, generously donated several hundred glass and flexiblebase negatives of his father's work to the Picture Collection. They represent a selection of work from one of Australia's important photographers.
John Cyril (Jack) Cato (1889-1971) was born in Tasmania. He worked in London from 1909 to 1913 as a society and theatre photographer. In 1913 he moved to South Africa and worked as an ethnographic photographer. After the war he returned to Hobart, Tasmania, and there set up a studio in 1920. In 1927 he moved to Melbourne and under the patronage of Dame Nellie Melba became a leader in social portraiture in the pictorial manner. Jack Cato is also renowned for his theatre photography, portraiture and pictorial landscapes. He retired to concentrate on his writing in 1947. He was nominated a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society in 1917.
His books include I Can Take It, Melbourne, Georgian House 1947 (autobiography); Melbourne 1949; The Story of the Camera in Australia, Melbourne, Georgian House 1955, repr. 1977.
John Chester Cato (1926-) was apprenticed to his father, and was his assistant on the Melbourne book. He was the head of the photography department at Prahran from 1980 to 1991. He was senior lecturer at Photography Studies College in 1977–1979 and at Prahran College in 1975–76. John was director and photographer for Athol Shmith, John Cato Pty Ltd, from 1950 to 1974. From 1947 to 1950 he was a photojournalist for the Argus in Melbourne. He was in the Royal Australian Navy from 1944 to 1946. He is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Professional Photogaphy, and has an Honorary Doctorate from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. His work is in essay form using the landscape as symbol.
[Turner Brown and Elaine Partnow, Macmillan Biographical Encyclopedia of Photographic Artists and Innovators, (Australia): Macmillan, 1983.]
The following transcript is based on an interview with John Cato, 23 June 1998.
What do you think characterised Jack?
Jack once wrote ‘If I had photographed in the slums … I would have ended up living in them.’ As a photographer he was a romancer, and a romantic. Maybe the romantic is that Fabian socialism of wanting the world to be better than it is. And maybe the capitalist thing at the end was facing the reality that that is not the way it is;
it's never going to be that way. He used to quote, and this is far from original, that if you aren't a communist when you are young, you have no heart, and if you are a communist when you are old, you have no bloody brain. There is a lot to it.

Unknown photographer, portrait of Jack Cato c.1950. Gelatin silver photograph, courtesy John Cato.

Jack Cato had an unusual education, particularly by today's standards.
Jack left school at 12. It was a bush school in Launceston, which was very small back then in 1890s. His father arranged for him to have lessons in metallurgy from a friend of my grandfather, who was a metallurgist at Mt Bischof down near Mt Lyall, Queenstown, where he learnt the properties of metals in photography. He also went and worked with a bloke by the name of Percy Whitelaw who was a photographer, and he went to night school and learnt art from Lucien Dechaineux.They were his three main tutors.
It appears that Jack's roots were very important to him.
Even though he left Tasmania and settled in Melbourne he never lost contact with Tassie. Jack was always Tasmanian to the bootstraps, he never forgot, ‘once an islander always an islander’.
Jack says in I Can Take It that young people weren't given any credit and it wasn't till you had grown a beard and had a few years behind you that people would take you seriously.
He had his own professional studio at 17. He borrowed from his father, which was paid back within 12 months. There are not too many 17-year-olds can get off their arse and do that. Now OK, you can say that it was a different time but it was still not an easy time.
In his photos Jack doesn't mind manipulating them to make them interesting?
He had the philosophy and it shows in his photographs: ‘It is better to be an entertaining liar than a truthful bore’. And as long as he's interesting, that was very important.
Well he must have been ‘interesting’ as he was able to put himself in the midst of society all over the world; he was able to mix freely with people from virtually anywhere in the world.
It didn't matter who or where.
Jack had the ability to attract great personalities like Melba and Caruso. Melba was a great patron of his…
I have the vaguest memories of sitting on the lawn at Coombe Cottage with Melba when I was a little tot. But I don't know whether you've got that the right way round — whether he attracted them or whether he was attracted to them, because there was this vanity, there was this snobbishness — he did become a namedropper.
Often photographers do not like being on the other side of the camera in any capacity, but the first time that Jack went on the stage, he found that he could entertain and make people laugh, and so instead of it being a mortifying experience, it showed him that he could be funny and entertain people.
He was vain. There are quite a few self-portraits around with his hat on because he didn't like being bald. But he was bald, apparently from the age of 30. And I mean eggshell bald.
He was also a singer, he loved the stage. I think that was more behind Jack Cato than anything: he was a performer, he loved performing, during the African years he was a member of a Pierrot troupe.

Jack Cato photographer. Portrait of Lucien Dechaineaux. Gelatin silver photograph, Jack Cato Collection, La Trobe Picture Collection. Published in I Can Take It (1947). Printed by Adrian Flint from the original negative.

He was also an actor. And that stage presence. You always felt he had, not a loud voice, but a voice that carried. It projected, and I've even known him to be on the tram going in to the city from Elwood and everybody in that tram would be in his conversation, no matter where he was sitting. Everybody could hear it and he would bring them in to it. You couldn't do it today, but at that period, yes, people would talk to each other, they weren't scared shitless of each other. It sounds a bit like the good old days, doesn't it- they were good old days.
And this ability to entertain was obviously an asset as a photographer.
When he was photographing a wedding it was almost like a tape recorder being put on. He had a line of patter, jokes, like a comedian standing up and doing the same show tonight as he did last night because it was different audience. And he would have the bridal party in hysterics. They would do anything he wanted them to do.
Did he take your wedding photos?
Yes, but we don't have any prints.
Jack was interested in stamps for most of his life. How did that preoccupation begin?
In 1859, Emily Cato, who was his second cousin, married John Watt Beattie, a Scotsman who lived in Hobart. Beattie was a major photographer and he was also the son of a photographer. He was very friendly with Jack's father and he was a frequent visitor to their home. In 1896, Tasmania decided they wanted to have a series of stamps of landscapes, of landscape photographs. No stamp in the world had ever been a photograph, at that stage. The Tasmanian government commissioned John Watt Beattie to take the photographs.This is pre-Federation, when colonies had their own stamps. Steve Spurling did some of the issue, I know, but basically most of them where done by Beattie.
On one trip Beattie took his little second cousin (Jack) by marriage, aged seven, to Cradle Mountain. Something happened one morning. Whether Jack Cato set up the tripod and put the camera on it (because it would have been a big hefty thing) or whether Beattie lined it up on Lake St Claire, Cradle Mountain, and let Jack push the bulb, I don't know, but my father always claimed it was his photograph. And it became the five-penny blue stamp of the state of Tasmania.
What are stamps but pictures, and those particular stamps, photographs, and if we go through a total cycle he sells his stamps and publishes The Story of The Camera. There is a connection there, the two invariably went together. So that was obviously the beginning of two lifelong paths that he was to go down.
If I go back to the 1940s, while I was still living at home before going into the Navy, Jack used to retire to his room at night after dinner where the card table was put up and with a reading lamp he would sit with his stamps. His albums were incredible, I've got a couple of pages somewhere his hand writing, you wouldn't believe, it was as if it was done on a computer. (When he was at night technical school he got awards for penmanship). He used to write with a mapping pen a long rigmarole about who designed the stamp, how it was printed, what the subject was, etc.
It was stamps, stamps, stamps, but they were pictures, pictures, pictures, and that was his relaxation.
I don't find that dedication any longer anywhere. As you can gather, I have a pretty high regard for what was.
Yes, I came across a press clipping about when he sold his philately collection.
It would be worth millions today if it was still intact.
Jack's views on women seem very old fashioned now, but I suppose that had to do with the time he lived in.[At this point Dawn Cato, John's wife, participates in the conversation.]
When we got engaged, Dawn, what did Pop say to you?
Dawn:He didn't say anything to me. He gave me a book on contraception with all these illustrations in it and I didn't know what contraception was.
John:This was in the 1940s. But bear in mind he would have been a very ardent feminist had he been alive during the feminist movement. In fact, he did a lot of photography for the Pankhursts in London, when they were chaining themselves to the rails and so on. He loved women, he almost preferred their company to male company which is unusual in Australia.
Maybe, to a certain extent what he was doing might have seemed patronising but it wasn't intended that way.
Well, when I read his book (I Can Take It) it did seem extremely patronising.
Yes, but that was never his intention and I'm not blind to his faults here, he had plenty. But he was not patronising intentionally.
Dawn::He thought a woman's place was in the home.
How did The Story of the Camera come about?
When he retired about 1950 (he sold out his business in 1946; by 1950 he wasn't even doing anything from home). He had done the Melbourne book and he was so much in love with photography he thought that there should be a story written about it. A lot of people have come a cropper over mistaking what the title is, it is not ‘A History of the Camera’ it's ‘The Story of the Camera’, he was interested in the story behind it.
It needed a lot of research. He used to go in there (the La Trobe Library) for weeks on end, we would hardly see him. He would go in old clothes and dig through (the basement). And find photos that were down the bottom wrapped in brown paper and covered in dust.
He sold his stamp collection and for the next five years financed his research that way. So The Story of the Camera was built out of stamps. It was very simple. You didn't expect the government to pay you to work. If you wanted to write a book or paint a picture or if you wanted to dance a dance, whatever, you did it, because that was what you did. And if you could survive financially on it at the same time, all well and good, and maybe somewhere in that is the answer to [his] becoming a reactionary capitalist. And if you live in a capitalist society there is not much point in being a communist because you won't be happy. He was never a communist but he certainly was a Fabian.
Jack always seemed to paint a picture, even with his words.
He was a bloody good writer. I have volume after volume of his press writings: he was a feature writer for the Age for many, many years, and he wrote books of poetry and books on philately.
I have a letter that he wrote about Melbourne, the city. He had a lifelong friend from the time he was a little boy till he died. A bloke by the name of Leo Tracy. Leo was a field officer in New Guinea when it was an Australian protectorate. And at one stage he got a letter from Leo asking him to go up and spend some time up in New Guinea. This is 1932, from Jack's reply—
Many thanks for your other long and interesting letter. Your picture of Papua like all pictures contains as much selected interest as one can arrange within the space of the frame. And it looks very picturesque but it doesn't urge me to go north for I know only too well that over a long period the highlights do make an interesting group but the pictures that are not painted are the long, long intervals of grey half tones when the glamour and romance that is newness and novelty have worn off and there is left over much fever and flies and heat and mosquitos … and irritation and lack of proportion that come from boredom and a sense of frustration and suppression on a civilised mind in barbarian surroundings.
Then he goes on, looks at Melbourne:
As I saw the legions (he's speaking about Rome) with their golden eagles go marching out of the compania and heard all the roar of the chariots off to the Colosseum where some barbarian wrestlers are fighting and watch the girls and boys go off to the great baths at Caracola out on the Apian way.
That's how he saw Melbourne. It was every city that ever was.
First to that noble piece of masonry the War Shrine. It's a wonderful job the porch is a copy of the facade of the Parthenon and one realises why it was the

Jack Cato photographer. ‘Matthew Flinders’. Gelatin silver photograph, Jack Cato Collection, La Trobe Picture Collection. Published in Melbourne (1949). Printed by Adrian Flint from the original negative.

most perfect building that man has erected on the earth and I see those old Greeks (and he's speaking about Melburnians) sitting in the shade of all its refinement of line with its frieze and its sculptures lifting the mind of man out of all the fetish and myths and taboos and dream thinking that was the order of the world before then …come to the house of parliament and see how the Romans took the Corinthian column and erected it on a grand scale and then we go down Collins St where a dozen banks show us how wonderfully they combine the arch and the column.
It's that. He loved it.
The Melbourne book exemplified this outlook he had. What seems to characterise much of the book is that many images were rephotographed and manipulated.
And sometimes over much, very much, over much.
Sandwiching negatives, putting in skies, and various elements such as the law courts in the Melbourne book. He stuck the photograph on a chair and placed a branch of blossoms in front of it and rephotographed it.
Oh that's the worst one in the book. I personally didn't like the book but I would like that one to be dropped from the book, I just do not like it.
Jack was totally 1916 pictorialist, he never really changed from that. His portraiture was pictorial.
He was also very urban. Jack belongs back in the days of Kauffman and Cazneaux and all those blokes. Now I love, in particular, one shot of Cazneaux called ‘The Razzle Dazzle’, which is in the National Gallery of Australia. Gael Newton sent me a copy of it. But it has a different sky to the one in the collection, they used to get them mixed up, one sky is much like another sky.
In the shot with Matthew Flinders the sculpture is bronze. It's since been cleaned up, but it used to be so bloody dark and there's sun on it, and so we have sun on dark but there's sun on that (the building) and that's not dark. What he does is, he makes the print to a certain tone, and then it is all rubbed down with carbon black powder and then it is rephotographed, copied.
That [‘General Gordon, and Spires of St Patrick's Cathedral’] was one of the toughest in the book to get. To get dark bronze against a pale sky, he just had to go back and back and back and back to get that sky right.
Do you think people appreciated the amount of work that went into photographing the images in the Melbourne book?
Oh, now they think it's all old hat. Fashions change, fashions change in art. Another ‘ism’ comes up and you've really got to look past that and say ok, out of that this is all within one ‘ism’, there is probably half a dozen good shots, that's it, there is probably half a dozen good shots in all of that.

Jack Cato photographer. ‘St Paul's on a Winter's Day’. Gelatin silver photograph, Jack Cato Collection, La Trobe Picture Collection. Published in Melbourne (1949). Printed by Adrian Flint from the original negative.


Jack Cato photographer. ‘Classic Collins Street’. Gelatin silver photograph, Jack Cato Collection, La Trobe Picture Collection. Published in Melbourne(1949). Printed by Adrian Flint from the original negative.

Which shots do you think are enduring?
‘Classic Collins Street’ is the best shot in the book in my opinion. As a matter of fact I think there were some lithographic prints made of that. He wanted this particular angle, and the only place it could be obtained was the window of the ladies’ lavatory in the building next door. He didn't go into the lavatory to look, he looked at the windows and thought, ‘Ah that's where I can get it’. The building was at the time occupied by the Green Room Club. Harold Holt was President at that stage. Pop got permission to look out the window but his camera and lens would not do the job. It needed a very wide angle, and Athol [Shmith] had a half-plate wide-angle camera, with fixed focus that he had made, and he lent it to my father and so he got the shot.
There is one of St Paul's with a wet roadway in the foreground. Now that took him a couple of years to get that one. He even asked the fire brigade to come and hose down the road, and they told him to get stuffed.
What do you think that Jack would have made of Photoshop and the technology of today?
I would say that he was so much a leader in his time, that he would be so far out in front with Photoshop [computer software for manipulating images] that the others would not have been able to keep up with him.
What do you see as Jack Cato's contribution to photography in Australia?
If you go back to the period in which he worked, he did do a lot of research in Africa on a fellowship. It was research into tropical photography at a time when it wasn't understood, but his contribution almost more than anything has a sense of fun about it. But also when I gave a copy of I Can Take It to David Moore, he had not seen it, and he could not believe that in the 1940s a book by an Australian photographer on Australian photography could possibly even be considered for publication. It was for two months the book of the month. Went into a second edition. Who back in the early 1950s would have had the vision to spend five years of their life sitting in the La Trobe Library and the Mitchell Library and all the rest of it, spending their own money to put together The Story of the Camera in Australia? He had a dedication and a devotion that I can't see from anyone in Australia. There are very few people who work 16 hours a day at photography, and he did, I mean literally 16 hours a day. Our house was always full of photographs. I couldn't escape it, it was there.
Ewa Narkiewicz
Ewa Narkiewicz, BA (University of Melbourne) and BA (fine arts, Victoria University), studied under John Cato at Prahran. Ewa exhibits widely and her work is represented in numerous collections around Australia, including the National Gallery of Victoria.