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1906 – 1986

Axel Poignant was born in England of Anglo-Swedish descent and was subsequently educated in both countries. Between 1922-26 he worked in Sweden as a sea cadet and then in the Forestry Department. Poignant arrived in Sydney during the Depression and worked as a general farm hand and “humped his bluey” as a swagman around the countryside when out of work.

A chance commission to do a photographic portrait revived Poignant’s earlier interest in photography and led to him earning a living taking portraits at home. In 1930 Poignant moved to Western Australia.

Once there he became involved with a group of naturalists, including Vince Serventy, Alec and Katherine King and Norman Hall. He also became friends with Hal Missingham, and with a group of naturalists made a film on the life of the fairy penguin.

In 1939 Poignant was able to join an expedition along the Canning stock route. A long drought had ended and the bush was transformed into renewed life by the rain.

The expedition confirmed Poignant’s involvement with naturalist photography. He felt as if he had been “ . . . reborn - an Australian” and resolved to communicate some of the qualities of his adopted land through his still and film work.

Prior to enlisting for war service, Poignant was able to show his new work in a joint exhibition with Hal Missingham in Perth in 1940.

Both photographers were stimulated by the documentary film movement of these years and sought realism and social awareness in their work.

Poignant’s Aboriginal madonna and child study (plate 98, May, 1938) was taken on the Canning stock route expedition and reflected the extension of his concern for the outback and its Aboriginal people.

His commitment to the documentary movement was strengthened in 1945 by the opportunity to work with British documentary film maker Harry Waft, who was in Australia making The Overlanders - a story of droving up north. Over the next seven years Poignant returned many times to the Northern Territory to record the land and its people on film and stills.

In 1946 Poignant was cameraman on the film Albert Namatjira, The Painter, for the Department of Information, following in 1949 with a documentary on the life of the kangaroo, releasing the film in 1954 as Down in the Forest. His first book was published in 1948 entitled Bush Animals of Australia.

During 1951-52 Poignant gained valuable experience as an assistant to Life magazine photographer Fritz Goro, then on assignment to cover Australia.

Poignant then undertook to record the Aboriginal communities at Liverpool River before a planned government station brought drastic changes to the old ways of living. This work led to the publication in 1957 of Piccanniny Walkabout - a pioneering effort using dramatic documentary photographs for children’s books.

On his return to Sydney Poignant found there were few publishing outlets in Australia for his documentary work. He participated in the “Six Photographers” exhibition in Sydney in 1955. The year after. Poignant returned to Europe again working on documentaries and children’s films for television.

In the 1960s Poignant worked chiefly as a photo-journalist for The Sunday Times magazine, The Guardian, The Observer and The Geographical. From 1965 he concentrated on children’s book illustration: Improbable Kangaroo was published in 1965 (republished as Animals of Australia in 1967).

Kaleku (New Guinea) in 1972, and Children of Oropiro (Polynesia) in 1976. All these were done in collaboration with his wife Roslyn - an anthropologist.

Their most recent work culminated in an exhibition of photographs from the archives of the British Royal Anthropological Institute. He has also donated a body of his anthropological work to the National Library of Australia, Canberra.

Poignant’s career exemplifies the socially concerned generation of photographers who lived through the Depression. In photo-journalism they found a sense of affirmation for the future by the dramatisation of their present.

above text based on Gaël Newton's Silver & Grey
Angus and Roberston, Australia 1980


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