Photography by John F Williams Australia » bio » index.php Updated:  Friday Jul 5th, 2013
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John Williams biographical info


Photography and history have been intertwined in my consciousness for most of my adult life. About the time in the 1950s that I was first becoming aware of A.J.P Taylor, E.W. Hobsbawm and Barbara Tuchmann, I was no less aware of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eugene Smith and the photographers who together made up the catalogue and exhibition known as the Family of Man.

I have moved on since those days. As a practising historian my historical reading list is nowadays become much more extensive, far more eclectic and centred on primary sources. In the same way, my photographic heroes of the 1950s and 60s are no longer so dominant as was once the case: there is something too theatrical and strangely exploitative in the work of Gene Smith while Cartier-Bresson's slick formalism is no longer wholly to my taste. If I were to name influences, I would find myself thinking of Werner Bischoff, Robert Frank and Andre Kertesz; a strange mix it is true, but central Europeans all of them and not strange for a displaced Anglo-Celt who sees Mitteleuropa as a kind of spiritual home.

If you were to ask me what I think I am, I would be forced to answer: "An historian who makes pictures and a picture maker who writes history". In the one, using the written record, I attempt to discover how human beings survive in a time and space which is not wholly of their creation but of which they form an integral part. In the other, using the empirical evidence that surrounds me, I attempt to discover how human beings survive in a time and space which is not wholly of their creation but of which they form an integral part.

The above is not a monumental typographical error or a slip of fingers attempting to manipulate a word processor. It is a statement of fact. In photographing I care nothing for making art, but am forever conscious that at the moment the shutter completes its traverse of the film plane the image is already locked in the past. It is history; my history to be true, and not necessarily an history of interest to you any more than the history I write might be so.

History can never be absolute fact, any more than photography tells truths or simply describes facts. The best the individual photographer/historian can hope for is to accumulate and interpret aspects of time and place. In his or her turn, the viewer-cum-reader brings to the image-cum-text a raft of accumulated beliefs and prejudices that enable the possibility of a whole new set of readings and interpretations beyond those imagined by the author.

Should it be otherwise? Not for me.

Introduction to "Line Zero" (UNSW Press 2004)

A Tram on Line Zero - a Beach in Winter

I love Vienna. It was there, on 12 September 2001, that the cover photo for this book was taken. Two friends were with me in a taxi as we cruised down the Ungargasse, past the Gasthaus where Beethoven put the finishing touches to his Choral Symphony and the house, near the Italian Embassy, where the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann had once lived and worked.

High culture was not on our minds that night. We were still in shock. The day before we'd watched, horrified, as the events at the WTC unfolded on TV. And as we rode that taxi, it seemed that the gemütlich Vienna of Strauss waltzes, coffee houses and wine gardens had given way to the Vienna of Harry Lime. I suppose my mood was nihilistic when I saw that tram, or rather the crude circles of light which framed it. Ligne Null - Line Zero. A Streetcar Named Nothing on the line to nowhere.

I took the shot.

Later I was told that I had it wrong. Vienna's tram lines are not numbered, but lettered. I had photographed a tram on line 'O', as between 'N' and 'P'. Did this matter? I don't think so. The raison d'être of a photograph is often based in false reasoning. For me this will always be the tram on Line Zero and the photograph the harbinger for two terrible years.

Just twelve months later Ingeborg Tyssen - photographer extraordinaire and my partner and inspiration for 28 years - was dead. As I write I am still mourning, yet ever more conscious of the realisation that life goes on. The Vienna tram was perhaps the last photograph of mine Ingeborg saw. She was a sensitive and intelligent reader of pictures and moved by it. Yet spooked at the same time. I won't go further.

As a counterpoint to the bleak mood of the Vienna tram, I sought an image of contrary opacity for the back cover, but of similar mood. Until I read what Gael Newton wrote about my Bondi picture from 1971, I was undecided.

Gael saw a meaning that explained the picture to me. I'd always seen it in formalistic terms and missed the content. Her reading was far more subtle and accurate: she was able to pick on a mood of dislocation I remember experiencing over thirty years ago, a mood that had unconsciously affected my picture-making choices.

Two pictures one bright one dark, sharing similar moods and even similar formal elements - and both, to boot, misread to varying extents by the author. So what? I think that leaving yourself open to the correction of your own misreadings can be one of the most confusingly satisfying things about making work (I find much usage of the word 'art' presumptive, so I don't use it). Whether writing or making pictures, once a work is out there it's no longer yours. Once out there, it has a life of its own. As Gael Newton has done, the viewer/reader can bring another set of experiences and understanding to the image/text which can only enrichen the work.

You can do that too, if you so choose.

Broadband Multimedia

QTVR Interative 360° photograph of John Williams in his Sydney backyard, taken August 2003.
Cubic QuickTime VR format, bytes, requires at least QuickTime v6
MP3 1 minute audio greetings & introduction by John Williams.
Stereo MP3 format, bytes

Major exhibtions

( solo after 1980 )

2004 John Williams. Sydney Diary 1958-2003. Musuem of Sydney.
1999 Portrait of the Month, National Portrait Gallery, Old Parliament House, Canberra.
1998 "Australian Correspondences", John Williams, photograph australien, Historial de la Grande Guerre. Péronne, France.
1997 Twenty Years on the Street: John Williams photographs, 1958-78, Byron-Mapp, Sydney.
1997 Traces 1916-18 — 1988-95, Alliance Française de Sydney.
1995 Traces 1916-18 — 1988-95, Byron-Mapp, Sydney.
1991 John Williams Photographs, (retrospective) National Gallery of Victoria.
1989 John Williams Photographs, (retrospective) Art Gallery of New South Wales.
1986 From the Flatlands, as part of the exhibition Flanders Then and Now, Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
1985 From the Flatlands, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney.
1984 Finding Time, Christine Abrahams Gallery, Melbourne.
1983 Living Room Portraits, Gallery A1, Tokyo.
1982 Living Room Portraits, Christine Abrahams Gallery, Melbourne.
1981 Living Room Portraits, Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney.

Selected exhibitions

( group after 1980 )

1999 Recent Acquisitions, National Portrait Gallery, Old Parliament House, Canberra.
1999 The 1970s, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney.
1997 A Face in the Crowd, National Portrait Gallery, Old Parliament House, Canberra.
1996 From the Street, Art Gallery of News South Wales, Sydney.
1995 Sydney Photographed, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney.
1994 We Are Family, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
1986 Flanders then and now, Australian War Memorial.
1984 Segmentations, Friends of Photography, Carmel, Calif., USA.
1983 Continuum 83, 13 Australian Artists in Japan.
1981 Reconstructed Vision, Art Gallery of New South Wales.


  • George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography,
    Rochester, NY, USA.
  • Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.
  • Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne.
  • National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.
  • Australian Parliament House.
  • Australian National Gallery.
  • Art Gallery of New South Wales.
  • National Gallery of Victoria.
  • Art Gallery of South Australia.
  • Art Gallery of Western Australia.
  • Tasmanian Museum and Gallery.
  • Alburt-Wodonga Regional Gallery.

Historical Works


2003 German Anzacs and the First World War, UNSW Press, 2003.
1999 Anzacs, the Media and the Great War, UNSW Press, 1999.
1995 Quarantined Culture: Australian Reactions to Modernism 1913 — 1939, CUP 1995.
1989 John Williams Photographs, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Conference & other papers

2000 Flights from modernity: Elisabeth Nietzsche, William Lane and Utopias in Paraguay. Duncan Waterson Festschrift, UTS and University of Sydney.
1997 Through Media Eyes. Australia and Germany 1913-1919 [Durch Medienaugen. Australien und Deutschland 1913-1919 ]. Goethe-Institut, Sydney.
1996 Wartime uses of photomontage at "Like life or lifelike?", Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney.
1993 The Amiens Gun, Symbol of Modernity?, at "War, Violence and the Structure of Modernity," (with Prof D.B. Waterson), New York University, NY.
1993 Interregnum - from the Armistice to Peace Day, at "1919 and Beyond", Australian War Memorial.
1992 Reporting the Battle of Fromelles, with Professor D.B. Waterson at Australian War Memorial Conference.
1990 Art, Race, War & Agrarian Myths, delivered at "An Anzac Muster," Monash University, Melbourne.
1980 Contemporary Photographic Criticism, at "Australian Photography Conference," Prahran CAE.

Journal articles, book chapters etc.

2001 Flights from modernity: Elisabeth Nietzsche, William Lane and Utopias in Paraguay. DuncanWaterson special edition of Journal of Australian Studies, UWA. (With Harry Knowles and Daniela Kraus).
1999 Through Media Eyes. Australia and Germany 1913-1919". In "War and Other Calamities," Journal of Australian Studies, UQP.
1994 "A postscript on Fromelles," Journal of the Australian War Memorial, October 1994.
1993 "Words on 'a lively skirmish': Fromelles in contemporary and foreign reports," Journal of the Australian War Memorial, October1993.
1993 "7 Battles," Journal of Australian Studies, no. 38, September 1993.
1992 "Art, War and Agrarian Myths: Australian Reactions to Modernism 1913-31." J. Smart and A. Wood (eds), An Anzac Muster: War and Society in Australia and New Zealand 1914-18 and 1939-45, Melbourne 1992.
1991 "Modernism and the Lost Generation," Art and Australia, September 1991.

Other writing (1973—)

  • Photography critic The Australian 1973-77
  • Articles & book reviews in The Age, Nation Review, National Times etc.
    as well as art, photography and cultural journals including Photofile,
    Art Network, Art in Australia

Academic record

PhD Modern History, Macquarie University.
MA Visual Arts, Sydney College of the Arts.
BSc Tech (Mechanical Engineering) University of NSW

1999– Hon. Research Associate, Dept of Germanic Studies, University of Sydney
1998 Visiting Fellow, School of Germanic Studies, University of New South Wales.
1998-95 Visiting Research Fellow, School of History, Macquarie University
1995-88 Macquarie University, visiting lectures
1994-89 National Art School, East Sydney (part-time lecturer in art history).
1988-76 Sydney College of the Arts, (Foundation Head, Dept of Photography, Film and Audio-Visual Studies).

Grants, awards, stipendiums etc.

2002 Army Research Grant. German Attitudes and mentality in World War One.
2000 Centenary of the Council of Federation (German Anzacs in World War One).
1999-98 Australian War Memorial (German Anzacs in World War One).
1998 Australia Council, Visual Arts Board. Special projects grant for exhibition at Historial.
1998-97 Goethe Insitut, München. Stipendium (German language scholarship).
1994 Australian Army Research Grant. Research for Anzacs, the Media and the Great War.
1989 Australia Council, Visual Arts Board. Two-year fellowship to fund and develop art practice.
1981 Art Gallery of NSW. Lady Warwick Fairfax Prize for photographic portraiture.