Australia’s leading garden photographers capture the essence of contemporary landscape design across the state.
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Australia’s leading garden photographers capture the essence of contemporary landscape design across the state.
The photographs of Australia’s most important amateur photographer are an astonishing modernist record of Bondi Beach and its people during a remarkable era. The champion jitterbug dancer captured the incredible displays of ‘beachobatics’ popular at the time as well as fitness fanatics, leisure seekers, bathers and lifesavers enjoying the famous strip of sand during the 30s and 40s.Background:
Australia’s leading garden photographers capture the essence of contemporary landscape design across the state.
The sweep of sand is famous the world over. The view of the water is mesmerising but so, too, is the scene on land. Here is where the beautiful people gather - the fitness fanatics, the fashionable, the lifesavers and lifestyle-conscious, the bronzed and beautiful, the visitors and the regulars.
Welcome to Bondi Beach... 1936.
The picture doesn't sound all that different from today - although, of course, no one was taking selfies back then. So how can we remember it? Thanks to the photographs of one incredibly talented Bondi local, George Caddy, and the collection of his photographs in the State Library of New South Wales, we have a lively and alluring snapshot of the Bondi lifestyle in the 1930s and 1940s - its people, its pleasures, its passions. We invite you to dive in...
Many of us pick up a camera to take a few photographs on the weekend, but it's not often that those photographs go any further than our friends and families. Yet when Bondi local George Caddy started taking his camera to the beach back in 1936, he was creating what would later become an astonishing record of one of Australia's most famous hot spots during a remarkable era. If it weren't for George Caddy's camera, some of Bondi's memorable moments and captivating people would have otherwise passed unseen.
Of course, he couldn't have known this at the time. Caddy, a keen amateur photographer, was simply pursuing one of his passions. Luckily for the rest of Australia, he was extremely good at it.
Between the years 1936 and 1941, George Caddy photographed the fitness fanatics, leisure seekers, bathers and lifesavers at Bondi Beach. Thanks to him, we know a little of how they dressed and how they played. Thanks to him, we have discovered 'beachobatics', incredible displays of fitness and balance performed by local gymnasts on the beach at the time.
Caddy's pictures show a love of people and their lives, and it's clear from them that his subjects, who were often his friends, responded warmly to his lens. But who was the man behind the camera?Who was George Caddy? Life and times
George Caddy was born in Fitzroy, Victoria, in 1914, the youngest of three children. His father was a printer and his mother a 'fancy box maker'. As a student at the Melbourne Technical Preparatory School, he was described as a 'very careful worker' who, aside from average results, showed a flair for geometry.
Growing up between two world wars, George Caddy was part of a generation that had more than its fair share of hardship and turmoil. In 1929, just before the Wall Street Crash that would trigger the Great Depression, his family moved to Sydney but soon became affected by the economic stresses of the time. Sometime in 1932 his unemployed father walked out after 30 years of marriage, leaving 17-year-old George, his mother Ellen and middle sister Vida living in their house in Bennett Street, Bondi (his elder sister, Melba, had remained in Melbourne when the family moved to Sydney). Vida, employed as a 'tailoress', married the following year so that only young George and his mother remained.
By 1936, things were looking up and Caddy found a job as a paper-pattern cutter for the Australian Home Journal magazine in the city. Meanwhile, he pursued two hobbies - photography and dancing - and during the years 1936 to 1941, he shone at both.
A self-taught photographer who'd won awards in local competitions, he would take his camera down to Bondi Beach at weekends and photograph his gymnast friends, local bathers, lifeguards and leisure seekers. At the same time, his love of Jitterbug dancing at local venues like the Trocadero saw him recognised for his skills on the dance floor.
Sadly, the outbreak of World War II put an end to this part of Caddy's life. He enlisted in the army and from 1941 to 1945 was stationed as a gunner in a heavy anti-aircraft battery near Brisbane. Although he returned to paper-pattern cutting in 1946, he seems to have left dancing and photography in the past. Probably his marriage in 1943 to Betty York, and the birth of his son Paul the following year, redirected Caddy's focus towards home life.
George Caddy died in 1983, leaving behind a box of 290 negatives that were discovered by his son. It is thanks to those negatives that the State Library can share this astonishing series of stories today.BODY OF WORK A modernist in the making
Two somersaulting gymnasts are frozen mid-air, the grains of sand they have kicked up glistening in the sun between them. Even today, using digital cameras, automatic flash and auto speed, this image would be difficult to replicate. Yet George Caddy mastered it with a flash bulb on 4 October 1936.
How did such a talent develop? George Caddy seems to have taught himself and been known in local camera club circles. He won prizes in the junior (under 16 years) section of the monthly competitions held by the journal Australasian Photo-Review. Indoor portraits of his sister Vida won him first prize and photographic goods to the value of ten shillings and sixpence ($1.05) in November 1930 and again in February 1931. Portraits of his father and sister came second in 1930, although some pictures were criticised for their depth of field and tonal range.
It was tougher in the senior section, where a 19-year-old Max Dupain of Ashfield came third in April 1930 with a soft-focus picture of a tree. From 1932, George Caddy entered the senior competition but was discouraged by his lack of success. Despite the prevailing trend for soft focus, one criticism of his work read: 'There is considerable loss of definition; in fact, it might be described as particularly fuzzy.'
Caddy, like Dupain, soon turned to a modernist style, influenced by overseas magazines such as Popular Photography from New York. His 1936 photographs of a tram at Eddy Avenue and women entering Town Hall Station display the hard shadows, raking light and unusual viewpoints of the new photographic aesthetic.
After converting the front room of the modest cottage at Bennett Street to a makeshift studio, equipped with home-made floodlights made from tin cans, Caddy experimented with portraiture. His lighting arrangements were dramatic, like the black and white cinema of the time, although he produced soft-focus portraits for Hazel York and her sister Betty, who George married in 1943. Perhaps he was a romantic, or simply aware that razor-sharp likenesses were not always appreciated by the sitter.
But it is the magical frozen moment of those somersaulting gymnasts that reveals Caddy's talent at its most persuasive. Among the 290 negatives, he stored away, his images of Bondi - its people and passions - are unforgettable.A mystery solved The photos in the box
'Do you know anything about this bloke George Caddy?'
This email was sent in 2007 from photographer Jon Lewis to Alan Davies, former Curator of Photography at the State Library of NSW. 'You've got to see these. They're of Bondi and they're sensational.' With those words, a discovery was unearthed that would make its mark on Sydney's photographic history.
After his father died in 1983, Paul Caddy was clearing out his flat in Maroubra when he came across a shoebox full of photographic negatives - 290 in all. They were neatly numbered and dated but revealed nothing more. Who they depicted and where they were taken were mysteries.
In the box, too, were newspaper articles from the time about his father who, it seemed, was a champion Jitterbug dancer. This came as a complete surprise to Paul, although he'd known his father had been involved in photography as he'd seen cameras, magazines and prints around the house when he was young. Bemused, he put the box to one side and forgot about the mystery negatives. More than two decades later, when scanning negatives had become a much easier task, Paul created a website for them. It took another man, Paul's friend Dr Peter Spitzer, to make Jon Lewis aware of the site and, realising its significance, Lewis sent that serendipitous email to Alan Davies at the State Library.
From here, the story is a triumph of sleuthing...
The first clue: Alan Davies found one of George Caddy's photographs - a tableau of seven men lifting five women - in the Library's copy of Health and Physical Culture magazine, published on February 1, 1939. The article identified the people as members of the Graham Gymnasium.
The second: Staff at Waverley Library confirmed that the Graham Men’s Gymnastic Club had been formed in Waverley in 1921.
The third: A story in the local paper, appealing for more information, unearthed a reader who’d kept an album of Caddy’s beachobatic pictures, with the names of the gymnasts on the back of one print.
From here, the Library’s team got to work with books, magazines, newspapers, electoral rolls, telephone directories and their own manuscripts, pictures and online resources. Gradually, the images – and most of the people in the photographs – were identified.
And so a box of unidentified pre-war film negatives introduced Australia to one of its most significant amateur photographers.A strange coincidence 3 men and a camera
It’s so bizarre you couldn’t make it up. In 1984, more than twenty years before the State Library exhibited George Caddy’s works, photography enthusiast Alan Davies had gone to a camera auction looking to buy a 1960s Kodak camera. Unsuccessful, he turned his sights towards a rare and very distinctive 1870s Dallmeyer wet-plate studio camera on a wheeled tripod. ‘I had money burning a hole in my pocket so I ended up purchasing this rather nice wood and brass camera,’ he recalls. ‘I thought it would make an ornament in the living room.’
Fast-forward to 2008, when Davies, then Curator of Photography at the State Library, was putting together the exhibition and George Caddy’s son, Paul, was sending him scans of his father’s negatives. One picture featured a Dallmeyer camera on a wheeled tripod that looked remarkably like the one in Alan Davies’ living room! Davies was convinced they were one and the same, but he needed proof.
He rang the auction house, who could not only confirm that the camera had been sold by someone who lived at the time in Mittagong (Paul’s former home), but, even more exciting, that it had belonged to someone ‘who used to take pictures on Bondi Beach’. By a delightful coincidence, George Caddy’s camera had ended up in the home of the person who would one day curate the exhibition of his incredible photos.
Head down to Bondi Beach these days and you'll be guaranteed, alongside the bathers and lifeguards, to see one or more of the following: a body builder, a beach volleyball player, a capoeira dancer, someone doing yoga, someone running, and someone exercising on the beachside equipment. The beach has always been a magnet for the healthy, fit and fabulous.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the fitness scene at Bondi was just as active, yet the feats were far more spectacular. 'Beachobatics', as it was named in Health and Physical Culture magazine, a blend of gymnastics and acrobatics performed on the sand by agile men and women for the delight of the beach-going public. And if it weren't for George Caddy, who captured these displays on his camera for a few short years just before and during World War II, we wouldn't have had the privilege of viewing it today.
Caddy's are the only visual records of the sport, although Pix magazine described it (11 November 1939): 'Millions spend their leisure hour on Australia's wonderful beaches. Some are content to surf and sunbake, others while away the time reading, knitting, playing, singing... some surfers specialise in acrobatics as a form of exercise. Many are exceptionally clever and finished displays of grace and beauty bring colour to beach parties.'Fitness in focus The people behind the pictures
So who were these super-fit people? Many were members of the Graham Men's Gymnastic Club, formed in Waverley, Sydney, around 1921.
Central to these was Wal Balmus, a professional strongman and equilibrist, the best known of Caddy's subjects who was famous for his role as Tarzan in the Tarzan's Grip adhesive logo. His handstands and daring feats of balance, from buildings high above Sydney's streets (not to mention Niagara Falls and The Gap), were the subject of articles in Pix magazine. It was Balmus who claimed responsibility for teaching hand-balancing to the Graham Gymnasium, saying, in an article in Health and Physical Culture (1 February 1939), 'At the commencement they did not have one outstanding balancer, but now they have the largest number of balancers of any gym in Australia and I am certainly proud of them.'
There was a strong belief at the time that personal fitness contributed to the nation's strength, a view Balmus summarised: 'Healthy recreational activities like these... will assure a happier and healthier generation to come.'
Accompanying Balmus in many photographs is Alf Stanbrough, who usually appeared as the strongman supporting his fellow gymnasts. Born in 1883, he was a local builder who had served in the Boer War. Wal Balmus ran a body-building and fitness school in Sydney and Alf was one of his prize pupils, used in the school's publicity because of his age - at this time, Wal was 47 and Alf 56.
When World War II came, most Graham gymnasts enlisted, although Alf was too old to join up and Wal died in 1941.
Of course, not all George Caddy's subjects were male gymnasts. By the late 1930s, the club was called the Graham Ladies' and Men's Gymnastic Club, and several of its female members made frequent appearances before Caddy's camera. One flexible regular who appeared in quite a few of his pictures is Roya Geale, the club's female junior champion, who displays agile feats alone and with her fellow Graham members, as well as being a commanding presence in her own right.All the right moves Know your positions
This move seems to have been popular with couples, as George Caddy photographed at least three pairs trying it. The magazine Health and Physical Culture cautioned (1 October 1933): 'Never attempt an overhead lift or throw for the first time without a friend or two standing by you in readiness to catch the girl should she fall.'
This triple balance involves one woman standing on the necks of two men, who in turn shoulder-balance on the feet of two others, forming a five-person centerpiece. 'Healthy, interesting, invigorating and thrilling recreation,' beachobat Wal Balmus called it.
One man supports two women with another man hand-balancing on top, as a separate gymnast can be seen watching from the shoreline.
This popular move came in a variety of configurations. In this eight-person version, the two bearers at the bottom support balancers at each end in a 'reverse high-low, hand-to-hand'. They also support the middle men with their feet in a 'tepee'. The middle men lift a gymnast in a straight bridge, while the top balancer uses him to complete the pyramid.
In this tricky move, which puts a lot of pressure on the bearer at the bottom, the guy in front watching is no idle bystander. His job is to act as 'spotter', helping with the formation of the stunt and catching the top balancer if the whole thing collapses.
Flight of a bird
Two gymnasts throw one woman to a catcher in this dangerous adagio movement. Adagio acts were a mixture of dance and acrobatics. When Australian adagio dancers the Reopete Trio performed this throw in 1938, Pix magazine observed: 'This movement requires perfect timing by all three, otherwise the girl might be seriously hurt.'
Does anything about this image look familiar? The head resting on the folded arms, the muscled body, the wide sky stretched above the obvious beach setting...
Most of us know Max Dupain's iconic Sunbaker, which the Australian photographer took in 1937 at Culburra Beach, on the NSW South Coast. Yet that same year George Caddy was capturing a similar pose - with a very big difference. In Caddy's picture, a prominent pair of legs stands on the back of the prone figure in what is in fact an exercise designed to strengthen the chest. As the magazine Health and Physical Culture had explained (1 May 1935): '... the breath is literally trod out of the figure on the floor. The idea is to make the chest as elastic as possible - hence full inhalation followed by treading and then complete relaxation and inertion.'
While Dupain's photographs were governed by aesthetics, Caddy's were always centred around personalities. This unforgettable shot, dated 20 February 1937, is in keeping with Caddy's photographs of beachobatics and displays of physical fitness - and part of the unique focus on people that is their charm.
'Today the beach assumes due colour and importance only when the Australian girl beats time to the music of the surf with a damp and lovely leg,' gushed Man magazine in 1940. Even then, the beach belles in their swimsuits were the darlings of the press, and one in particular was a camera favourite.
Her name was Valmae Maher, and she appeared in several of George Caddy's photographs.
The most unforgettable picture of this North Bondi beauty is of her lying provocatively on the sand on 3 February 1940, wearing a new Canadian swimsuit with adjustable drawstrings known as a 'swoon suit' because of the supposed effect it was meant to have on men once they viewed its peek-a-boo style cut-out panels.
In fact, the suit was a product of slightly less romantic wartime rationing - rubberised fabrics were scarce and the adjustable laces allowed it to fit most figures without the need for elastic.
Nevertheless, the suit made a splash and Maher, who regularly appeared as a pin-up in Truth` magazine, was immortalised with the caption: 'Grandmother would have been popeyed had she sighted Valmae Maher yesterday at Bondi.'Shorts vs Trunks The men's debate
Bondi's male bathers weren't free of fashion controversy either.
In 1935, Eric Spooner, Minister for Local Government, introduced an ordinance that prevented men wearing swimming trunks that exposed the chest. No portion of the stomach could be seen and costume legs had to be three inches (eight centimetres) long. Males over twelve also had to be skirted at the front, up to the waist. Although this regulation was enforced, most bathers regarded it as a joke and by 1938 most men wore trunks. As Man magazine reported in December 1937, 'The battle of trunks versus shorts seems to have been won by the advocates of trunks.'
Beachobat Wal Balmus, who featured in so many of George Caddy's photographs, had quite a bit to say about beach attire. In an article in Health and Physical Culture magazine that accompanied a picture of the Graham Gymnasium team, he wrote of the more comfortable new style, saying that it gave '... us greater benefit of sunshine and more freedom of movement. It makes one feel so much better.' Balmus spoke for the beachobat generation when he argued the benefits of the exercise, saying it brought 'young couples together to enjoy each other's company, seeing each other as they should be seen - in a bathing costume minus mock modesty'.Beach fashions What will they wear next?
Valmae Maher's swoon suit was a talking point, but it wasn't the only subject of interest.
Roya Geale in her two-piece swimsuit cast a glamorous silhouette on the sands in one of Caddy's unforgettable images, although the look wasn't for everyone. Even in 1938, when the two-piece was introduced to Sydney, Pix magazine pointed out, in a disturbing precursor of today's media obsession with weight and fashion, that 'costumes designed for slim athletic types should not be worn by outsize figures'. In another picture, Geale wears the latest beach accessory - a chenille beach jacket - over her swimsuit. The Pacific Chenille Craft Co. began manufacturing chenille in Sydney in 1940 and advertised their products as 'designed in Hollywood... made in Australia'.
Media comments on beach fashions from the time provide great reading and show, just as today, Bondi's role as a stage for parading current styles. 'You simply dare not be less carefully turned out for the beach than you are for the afternoon party or the cocktail hour,' wrote the fashion editor of Truth magazine on 12 November 1939. 'Slacks now! Though they must give the essentially tailored look... shorts have been so long the orthodox wear for the seaside that it would be impossible for the fashion experts to ring the changes very much where they are concerned.'
Before the war, it had been the meeting spot for the free and fun-loving, where they could swim, sunbake, promenade and enjoy the entertainment of the beachobats parading their skills on the sand.
But even after the war began, Bondi Beach continued to attract crowds. At the start of the 1939 surfing season, The Sydney Morning Herald commented on 13 November: 'There is perhaps a warplane overhead and a warship to seaward, and men in khaki lounging on the esplanade, but the beaches this season are as crowded as ever.'
Against a backdrop of world turmoil, the links between national health and personal fitness remained strong, and the beach was a place to celebrate this. Just a few years earlier, Health and Physical Culture had noted: 'The troubled state of Europe has made physical culture more than ever popular. The inertia of depression must be counteracted by some means - and the Bright Young Things of both sexes have discovered that physical culture takes them out of their troubled selves quicker and better than the old-fashioned palliatives - drinking and necking.'
If the Herald article of 13 November was anything to go by, the physique of Australian beachgoers suggested the country was in safe hands: 'It is a regular source of amazement to visitors from the older countries overseas... "This makes the A.I.F. understandable", was the comment of a recent French visitor, after seeing a big beach crowd for the first time. "Your soldiers were not surpassed - your women will never be equalled."'Beach heroes A tough day job
'Enlistments have hit the surf clubs hard, and, although they are maintaining their patrols, many of them are very short-handed,' reported the 13 November 1939 article in The Sydney Morning Herald.
Among George Caddy's photographs of life on Bondi Beach are some striking images of the local lifesavers. In one, a visiting club takes part in a march-past and Caddy's angle lends an exaggerated heroic quality to their stance. In others, his feeling for a scene and the people involved has allowed him to capture the drama of a young woman's rescue from rough seas, followed by the arrival of the ambulance at the Promenade.
Turbulent surf kept the lifesavers busy and incredibly, until February 1938, no one had drowned on any Australian beach while surf lifesavers were on duty. Then came Black Sunday, 6 February 1938, when three huge waves swept quickly onto Bondi Beach, pulling people out to sea in a deep channel once the water finally receded. Amid the chaos, the lifesavers went into overdrive, manning reels, grabbing floats, surfboards and skis or just swimming straight into the maelstrom. After 30 terrifying minutes the water was cleared and the casualties counted: approximately 250 bathers needed assistance; 150 were rescued unharmed; 60 were suffering from immersion; 35 were rescued unconscious and revived; and five were dead.
The heroic spirit that Caddy captured with his camera was remarked on by a visiting American doctor, Marshall W. Dyer, who said, 'I have never seen and I never expect to see again, such magnificent work as was done by those lifesavers.'
'Jittermaniacs. Doctors warn of the danger of such eroticism...'
So announced Pix magazine in 1939 of the new dance that was taking America by storm. Jitterbug was a general term for dances we now call swing. It developed in America in the mid 1930s with improvised steps taken from the Charleston, Lindy Hop, Suzy-Q and Truckin'.
Local commentators were keen to predict disastrous results of its high-paced, energetic movements, should it hit Australian shores. As Pix magazine speculated, 'Some have dropped dead, many collapsed, after a night of jittermania. Now it has spread to the rest of America. Will this craze come to Australia?'
The answer came three months later in September 1939, when visiting Harlem 'swingster' Sleepy Williams coached Sydney dancer Della Davis, who then performed with her partner Bill Robinson at the Tivoli.
By 1941, there were about 5000 jitterbug dancers in Sydney, and contests were held every Saturday night at the famous Trocadero in George Street. Jitterbugging was performed close to the Trocadero's stage, where the orchestra would 'hot up' the music for the jitterbug crowd.Caddy's happy feet The Bondi Jitterbug legend
A familiar figure at the Trocadero was George Caddy. As well as photography, dancing was one of his hobbies - another surprise for his son, Paul, when he discovered his father's long-neglected box of negatives and newspaper clippings. Photographs of George Caddy appeared in The Daily Mirror and Sunday Telegraph and, in 1941, he was described as one of Australia's leading Jitterbug dancers.
Caddy won many contests and his partners in 1941 included Pearl Scott, Muriel McMahon and Mavis Lang, who held the Australian jitterbug championship. Even though it was a hit with the younger generation, not everyone was impressed with the new craze. As music critic George Hart put it: '... what makes the jitterbug jit? Is it some glandular deficiency that causes the youngsters to behave like war-whooping savages every time they hear a 4/4 rhythm? Is it a case of ineffective secretion of the thyroid glands, defective hormones, or what?'
Whatever the case, George Caddy was not only a fan but a very talented one. On weekends, he'd take his wind-up gramophone down to the beach with him and dance with anyone who was willing - two photographs show Caddy dancing with different partners on Bondi's promenade, as at ease by the sands he loved as he was on the dancefloor.
A talented photographer who happened to be a great dancer. A champion dancer whose photographs were mesmerising. Either way you look at it, George Caddy made his mark on Bondi between the years 1936 and 1941, and his body of work has left behind a remarkable and lively record of a special era in Sydney.