A recently acquired vintage photograph by an influential early-twentieth-century photographer shows one of the first depictions of bodysurfing. Harold Cazneaux’s photograph ‘Surf shooters catching a wave’, taken around 1929 at Bondi
Beach, is a close-up action view of around 20 ‘surf shooters’ riding a wave together through the foam, their arms outstretched. The iconic image, which captures the physicality of what we now call bodysurfing, reflects Australia’s burgeoning love of beaches and outdoor, summer recreation. At the time, it was only the brave who dared to ‘shoot the breakers’ and even fewer did so on boards.
During the early twentieth century, bathers flocked in great numbers to beaches, as cities became more congested, roads and transport improved, and restrictions on men and women swimming in public were lifted. There was a resulting increase in drownings and accidents because, as much as swimming was becoming glorified, many novice bathers hadn’t yet learnt how to do it. In 1907, the first lifesaving club opened in Bondi, and later that year the Surf Bathing Association of New South Wales was established. However, many beachgoers still preferred to splash in the shallows or sunbathe, as it was called, on the sand. It was only the ‘young and strong’ who would venture out into the surf.
Cazneaux took a series of beach photographs that featured in the March issue of the popular The Home magazine in 1929; this one may have been part of the same series. His photographs accompanied an article written by Jean Curlewis, daughter of writer Ethel Turner, ‘The Race on the Sands: Showing What Surf and Sun are Doing for the Inhabitants of the Australian Coastline’, which featured scenes of sunbathers, crowds in the shallows and ‘surf shooters’ at Bondi Beach.
Harold Cazneaux (1878–1953) was a pioneer photographer whose pictorialist style influenced Australian photographic history. Born in New Zealand, he settled in Sydney in 1904 and started exhibiting his work at the Photographic Society of New South Wales. By 1909 he had his first solo exhibition, which was also the first solo exhibition of photographs staged in Australia. He was a founding member of the Sydney Camera Circle in 1916, and the leading photographer for The Home magazine from the early 1920s. The Home: The Australian Journal of Quality was designed to reflect modern trends and Cazneaux’s photographs captured the spirit of the times. As a regular contributor to national and international exhibitions, photographic societies and journals, Cazneaux was unfaltering in his desire to promote photography. His own photographs are considered to be some of the most memorable images of the early twentieth century in Australia.
This rare, vintage photographic print is titled and signed by the photographer. It is an iconic view, quite different to Cazneaux’s other beach images and a notable addition to the Library’s extensive twentieth-century photography collections. It’s also a wonderful celebration of summer.
Jennifer O’Callaghan is a Specialist Librarian.
This story appears in Openbook summer 2022.