|John Chester Cato|
John Cato and Athol Shmith c. 1955
|Died||2011 (aged 84–85)|
|Occupation||Photographer and teacher|
John Chester Cato was an Australian photographer and teacher born in 1926. Cato started his career as a commercial photographer and later moved towards fine art photography and education. Cato spent most of his life in Melbourne, Australia.
Cato’s career in photography started at the age of 12 as an apprentice to his father, Jack Cato. Cato was employed by Argus Newspaper as a photojournalist in 1947. Cato held that position until 1950 when he became a photographer and assistant for Athol Shmith Pty Ltd. In 1955, Cato and Shmith became business partners and started Athol Shmith-John Cato Pty Ltd. Cato moved away from the commercial photography world in 1974 after experiencing what he described as “a kind of menopause”. Shortly after leaving his partnership with Athol Shmith, Cato began his teaching career and started to focus on fine art photography. Cato was one of the first photographers in Melbourne to give up their commercial practice to become a fine art photographer.
Cato began his teaching career in 1975 at Prahran College of Advanced Education. Between 1977 and 1979 Cato contributed to the foundation of Photography Studies College and also lectured there until becoming head of the photography department at Prahran College of Advanced Education. Cato held the position of department head until his retirement in 1991. Cato was a passionate and generous teacher and was highly regarded by his students and peers. He described himself as being "duty bound" to share his experience with students and colleagues.
Many of Cato's past students have gone on to hold well regarded positions in the photography, art and education fields. Amongst Cato’s students was Bill Henson, a well known Australian contemporary art photographer. Cato inspired Henson with his use of musical analogies, which Henson later incorporated in his own work.
Paul Cox, one of Cato's colleagues at Prahran College of Advanced Education, stated that while all teachers in Cato’s department were photographers, none of them were qualified. Cox said “Can you imagine that happening today? … At Prahran, teachers and students learnt from each other. It was an exchange.”
Cato strongly believed in photography as a form of individualised expressionism, a view that was shared by Athol Shmith, who was one of the first to teach photography as a creative course in the late 1960s.
Cato used un-manipulated landscape photographs to "explore the elements of the landscape". Over a ten year period, Cato spent two years at a time focusing on an individual aspect of the Australian Landscape, often spending a large amount of time in the wilderness observing the conditions and waiting for the perfect opportunity. He would often wait and contemplate a scene for days before finally pressing the shutter when the moment was right. Cato's work was deeply considered and clearly showed his unique perspective on the natural elements around us.
The debate of whether photography is actually an art form was quite relevant during Cato’s time. Some think of Cato as one of the first photographers to blend the idea of a photograph being both a creative interpretation of a scene and a recording of reality. Some photographers of a similar era, such as Ansel Adams, were more technical in their photography, resulting in less manipulation or interpretation of the scene when compared to Cato’s work. Nino Martinetti, one of Cato’s past students, said “Look carefully at John Cato’s simple photographs of rocks, branches, trees, bark, sand, water and reflections… is that reality? Yes, but not as many people see it. This is the fine line where the art of photography and reality stand, where the artist captures an emotion for us to share and interpret.”
Cato preferred to use large format cameras for the excellent quality and resolution that they offered. When taking students on camping trips, he insisted they use the same instead of 35mm SLR cameras, which were the “weapon of choice” at the time. Cato believed due to the inability to quickly capture 36 shots on a roll of film with large format cameras, it would force students think before they pressed the shutter and pre-visualise their photograph.
Fine art photography
In 1970, four years before leaving his commercial practice, Cato began exploring photography as an art form. His fine art photography drew connections between humanity and the environment, exploring a different theme in each photo essay. Cato's personal work was described as "a reflection of the psyche, not of light, that allows a consciousness to be present in the figuration of the photographic prints. The personal work is an expression of his self, his experience, his story and his language."
Earth Song was Cato's first collection of personal work to be exhibited. This series consisted of 52 colour photographs sequenced in a way that allowed the work to be recognised as individual photographs and as part of an overall concept. Cato's use of musical analogies can be seen in the sequencing of Earth Song. The sequence was described as using "melodic line and symphonic form as its metaphoric basis".
Earth Song was exhibited as part of the Frontiers exhibition, a group show at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1971. The group consisted of photographers who were exploring the idea of photography as an art form and were looking for a way to see the world differently through their camera.
Essay 1: Landscapes in a Figure
In Cato's first photographic essay, he completed five black and white photo sequences between 1971 and 1979. In each sequence, Cato explored the expression of nature and creation, which he saw as the physical representation of his own life experiences and philosophy.
|Series title||Number of photographs||Produced between|
|Tree - A Journey||18 images||1971 - 1973|
|Petroglyphs||14 images||1971 - 1973|
|Seawind||14 images||1971 - 1975|
|Proteus||18 images||1974 - 1977|
|Waterway||16 images||1974 - 1979|
Essay 2: Figures in a Landscape
Essay 2 is more politically driven compared to other work and focuses on "the sublimation of Aboriginal culture by Europeans". This series explores the idea of destruction of culture, spirituality and physicality using duality to represent the idea photographically.
|Series title||Number of photographs||Produced between|
|Alcheringa||11 images||1978 - 1981|
|Broken Spears||11 images||1978 - 1983|
|Mantracks||22 images (in pairs)||1978 - 1983|
Double Concerto: An Essay in Fiction
Double Concerto was Cato's final photo essay. This photo essay was published under the deliberately androgynous 'Everyman' names Pat Noone and Chris Noone, two identities that Cato created to "visualise alternative conditions within himself". Each sequence explored how individual people can witness and experience the world very differently from each other. This series was exhibited as Cato's "farewell show" at Luba Bilu Gallery in Greville St. Prahran on his retirement from teaching.
|Series title||Number of photographs||Produced between|
|Pat Noone||30 images||1984 - 1990|
|Chris Noone||11 images||1985 - 1991|
Exhibitions and galleries
Cato exhibited his work in 17 solo exhibitions in Australian and international galleries. Cato’s first solo exhibition was held at Horsham Art Gallery (Victoria, Australia) in 1975, with subsequent solo exhibitions being held every few years up until 2004. His work was also exhibited in 24 group exhibitions between 1964 and 2003.
Cato’s work is held in numerous gallery collections across Australia including the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria, Horsham Art Gallery, Albury Regional Art Gallery, Deakin University, Tasmanian Art Gallery and Melbourne State College. In addition to Australian galleries, Cato’s work is also held in collections in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and Schmidtbank Weiden in Germany.
Paul Cox and Bryan Gracey, both teachers at Prahran College, co-curated a collection of Cato’s work to be exhibited at the 2013 Ballarat International Foto Biennale. Cox and Gracey both believe that Cato’s work deserves to be seen and recognised for what it is. The exhibition features Cato’s black and white landscape photographs taken between 1971 and 1991. In regard to the exhibition, Paul Cox said “John will ride a high wave. He belongs in the National Gallery, in the high echelons and I think this is a very wonderful first step.”
Reputation, legacy and awards
Cato was known for being a very humble photographer. He never intended for himself or his work to become famous. In his mind, the work was its own reward. In the 2013 Ballarat International Foto Biennale guide, Cato was described as being “underrated” and “far ahead of his time”.
Paul Cox said the following in an article for The Australian: “He was a dreamer. I always adored him. John had a wonderful heart; he was tender for a man. You know you don’t know many people like that.”
Due to the fact he had a strong dislike of publicity, Cato would sometimes publish his work under a pseudonym. Paul Cox said “Ego is always the biggest limitation of an artist, but John had no ego. He was a free man.” Isobel Crombie, head photography curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, shared Cox's opinion and said "He was different in that he did not have the huge ego of some of his contemporaries."
Over his career, Cato was honoured with numerous awards including Fellow at the Australian Institute of Photography (1991) and Honorary Doctor of Arts at RMIT University (1999). He was also awarded two grants, one a Visual Arts Board Travel Grant in 1985 and the other a Research and Development Grant from Victoria College in 1990.
- Newton, Gael (1988). Shades of Light. Canberra: Australian National Gallery. p. 131. ISBN 0642081522.
- "Ballarat International Foto Biennal - Core & Special Events Guide 2013" (PDF). Retrieved 24 March 2015.
- "Jack Cato's Melbourne: An Interview with John Cato". Retrieved 24 March 2015.
- Willis, Anne-Marie (1988). Picturing Australia: A History of Photography. London, United Kingdom: Angus & Robertson Publishers. p. 222. ISBN 0207155992.
- Cox, Paul; Gracey, Bryan (2013). John Cato : retrospective. Melbourne, Vic: Wilkinson Publishing. ISBN 9781922178091.
- Newton, Gael (1988). Shades of Light. Canberra: Australian National Gallery. p. 149. ISBN 0642081522.
- Stieven-Taylor, Alison (10 August 2013). "Nature's gentle man". The Australian. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
- Willis, Anne-Marie (1988). Picturing Australia: A History of Photography. London, United Kingdom: Angus & Robertson Publishers. p. 219. ISBN 0207155992.
- Newton, Gael (1988). Shades of Light. Canberra: Australian National Gallery. p. 148. ISBN 0642081522.
- Willis, Anne-Marie (1988). Picturing Australia: A History of Photography. London, United Kingdom: Angus & Robertson Publishers. p. 235. ISBN 0207155992.
- Ballarat International Foto Biennale. Ballarat: Ballarat International Foto Biennale Inc. 2013. p. 4. ISBN 9780992305505.
- "NGV - John Cato". National Gallery of Victoria - John Cato. National Gallery of Victoria. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
- "Life through unvarnished lens". The Sydney Morning Herald. 21 February 2011. Retrieved 20 April 2015.