John Cato

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John Chester Cato
John Cato and Athol Shmith c. 1955
John Cato and Athol Shmith c. 1955
Born2 November 1926
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia
Died30 January 2011 (aged 84)
Victoria, Australia
OccupationPhotographer and teacher
SpouseDawn Cato

John Chester Cato (2 November 1926 – 30 January 2011) was an Australian photographer and teacher. 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.[1][2]

Photography career[edit]

Cato’s career in photography started at the age of 12 as an apprentice to his father, Jack Cato. Returning in 1946 after service in the Pacific for the Royal Australian during WW2, Cato worked as a self-employed photographer before being 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 Collins Street, Melbourne and married Dawn Helen Cadwallader in October that year.[3][4] During this period he undertook research for his father Jack on the latter's The Story of the Camera in Australia published in 1955. In 1955, Cato and Shmith became business partners and started Athol Shmith-John Cato Pty Ltd.

When in 1959-60 the MoMA The Family of Man exhibition toured Australia Cato visited the show several times and was inspired by its humanist themes and optimism.[5] He 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.[2][6][7][8]

Fine art photography[edit]

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 made 'straight' (directly imaged) landscape photographs usually with large or medium-format cameras in order to "explore the elements of the landscape", usually enhancing these in printing. Over a ten-year period, Cato spent two years at a time focusing on a particular symbolic theme in 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.[9][10]

"The meeting of land and sea has always held a mystic fascination for me. Through my camera, my experience of it has been heightened, my awareness of its wonder deepened. Above all, I remember its clamorous silence."[8]

John Cato 1976

Cato frequently used symbolism and mysticism in his work. This was popular in the 1970s amongst both new and experienced photographers, including his colleague Paul Cox.[11][12]

The debate around the question of the status of photography as an art form was quite relevant during Cato’s time. Some think of Cato as one of the first Australian 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, whose imagery and photographic print making is more appropriately compared to that of Minor White or Bill Brandt. Cinematographer 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."[13]

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."[8]

Earth Song[edit]

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".[8]

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.[8]

Essay 1: Landscapes in a Figure[edit]

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.[8]

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[edit]

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.[8]

"Cato saw that even as they are part of the whole, the duality of positive/negative, black/white, masculine/feminine are always in conflict."[8]

John Cato: Retrospective

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[edit]

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.[8] This series was exhibited as Cato's "farewell show" at Luba Bilu Gallery in Greville St. Prahran on his retirement from teaching.

"For the truth of the matter is that people have mixed feelings and confused opinions and are subject to contradictory expectations and outcomes, in every sphere of experience."[8]

John Cato: Retrospective

Series title Number of photographs Produced between
Pat Noone 30 images 1984 - 1990
Chris Noone 11 images 1985 - 1991

Teaching career[edit]

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.[2][8]

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.[2][6][14]

Paul Cox, one of Cato's colleagues at Prahran College of Advanced Education, stated that while the staff of Cato’s department were photographers, none of them were qualified teachers. Cox said "Can you imagine that happening today? … At Prahran, teachers and students learnt from each other. It was an exchange."[15]

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, convinced that the more technical view camera would force students think before they pressed the shutter and pre-visualise their photograph, rather than to 'blaze away' with expendable roll film.[13][16] 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.[17]

Exhibitions and galleries[edit]

Cato exhibited his work with other photographers in 24 group exhibitions between 1964 and 2003.[8] and in 17 solo exhibitions in Australian and international galleries. In 1973 he was included with Stan Ostoja-Kotkowski, Mark Strizic, Peter Medlen and John Wilkins in Frontiers at the NGV which toured to the Australian Embassy in Bankok, June 27– July 5[18] and showed at Abraxas Gallery, Manuka, in December 1974 with Sue Ford, Les Gray and Mark Strizic.[19] 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.

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.[8]

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."[15]

Solo Exhibitions[edit]

  • 1975 Horsham Art Gallery (Victoria)
  • 1976 Australian Centre for Photography (NSW)
  • 1976 Gallery School of Photographic Art (Victoria)
  • 1977 Photographers Gallery (Victoria)
  • 1979 Art Gallery of New South Wales (Sydney)
  • 1980 McClelland Gallery (Victoria)
  • 1982 Prahran College of Advanced Education
  • 1984 lwalewa-Haus, Bayreuth University (F.G.R)
  • 1985 Australian Centre for Photography (NSW)
  • 1991 Luba Bilu Gallery, Victoria
  • 1992 Horsham Art Gallery, Victoria
  • 1993 Albury Regional Art Centre (NSW)
  • 1995 lwalewa-Haus, Bayreuth University (G.D.R)
  • 1997 Photographers Gallery (Victoria)
  • 2002 Rebecca Hossack Gallery, London
  • 2004 Wilderness Gallery (Cradle Mountain N.P. Centre) Tasmania
  • 2004 Kunst Keller, Cologne

Group Exhibitions[edit]

  • 1964 Gallery 'A' Melbourne
  • 1971 National Gallery of Victoria
  • 1971-73 Touring Exhibition (Tokyo, Manila, Seoul, etc.)
  • 1974 'Abraxas' Gallery, Canberra
  • 1975 Museum and Art Gallery of Tasmania, Hobart
  • National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
  • 1975-76 Touring Exhibition (India, Africa, etc)
  • 1976 1977 Victorian College of the Arts Gallery
  • 1979 Antiquarian Booksellers, Melbourne
  • 1982 Church Street Photographic Centre (Victoria)
  • 1982 Pitspace Phillip Institute of Technology
  • 1983 City of Waverley Art Centre (Victoria)
  • 1984 Camden (NSW) Art Centre
  • 1984 Australian Centre of Photography (NSW)
  • 1986 National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
  • 1987 Patra Gallery, Melbourne
  • 1988 Australian Centre of Contemporary Art,
  • 1988 Melbourne, National Gallery of Australia,
  • 1988 Canberra, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
  • 1989 Blaxland Gallery, Melbourne
  • 1992 Victorian Centre for Photography
  • 1993 Daimaru Gallery, Melbourne (Australian Conservation Foundation)
  • 1995 Victorian Centre for Photography
  • 1997 City of Waverley Art Centre (Victoria), and touring
  • 2003 Brighton University United Kingdom


  • Bibliotheque Nationale (Paris)
  • National Gallery of Victoria
  • National Gallery of Australia
  • Department of Foreign Affairs
  • Tasmanian Art Gallery (Hobart)
  • Swinburne Institute of Technology, Melbourne
  • Melbourne State College
  • City of Waverley Art Collection
  • World Congress Centre, Melbourne
  • Horsham Art Gallery
  • Albury Regional Art Centre
  • Deakin University
  • Schmidtbank Weidcn, Germany

Reputation, legacy and awards[edit]

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".[13]

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."[15]

Due to the fact he had a strong dislike of publicity, Cato would sometimes publish his work under a pseudonym, characteristically exhibiting his valedictory exhibition as 'Pat and Chris Noone'. Paul Cox said "Ego is always the biggest limitation of an artist, but John had no ego. He was a free man."[15] 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."[20]

Honorary Appointments[edit]

Over his career, Cato was active in national and international networking amongst the photographic and art education fields. He filled a number of honorary roles including one that was a request by Prahran graduates Euan McGillivray, the Curator of Photography at the Science Museum of Victoria, and Matthew Nickson, who worked at the Photography Department at RMIT, to chair the landmark conference 'Working Papers On Photography' (WOPOP) Australian Photography Conference, held at Prahran College of Advanced Education, Melbourne, from 19–21 September 1980.[21]

  • 1975-76 Photography Advisor, National Gallery of Victoria
  • 1977-80 Executive Council, Australian Centre of Photography
  • 1977-87 Honours Executive and Juror, Institute of Australian Photography
  • 1978-79 Course Advisor, Victorian College of the Arts
  • 1978-82 International Advisory Board, History of Photography (Pennsylvania State University)
  • 1979 Executive Council, Australian Photography Educational Council
  • 1980 Course Advisor, Bendigo College of Advanced Education
  • 1980-82 Advisor, City of Waverley Art Collection
  • 1981 Chairman, Australian Photography Education Council
  • 1982 Chairman, WOPOP Photography Conference
  • 1981-91 Course Advisor and External Assessor, Photography Studies College, Melbourne
  • 1982 Researcher and curator 'Jack Cato' a Retrospective Exhibition
  • 1985-86 Foundation Member and Steering Committee, and Design, Victoria College Victoria Centre for Photography
  • 1987-89 Advisory Board, Victorian Centre for Photography


Cato was honoured with numerous awards including Fellow at the Australian Institute of Professional Photographers (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.[8]

  • 1962 Associate Australian Institute of Photography
  • 1978 Honorary Fellow, Australian Institute of Photography
  • 1985 Visual Arts Board Travel Grant (Europe)
  • 1990 Research and Development Grant, Victoria College
  • 1991 Fellow, Australian Institute of Professional Photography
  • 1999 Honorary Doctor of Arts, RMIT University


  1. ^ Newton, Gael (1988). Shades of Light. Canberra: Australian National Gallery. p. 131. ISBN 0642081522.
  2. ^ a b c d "Ballarat International Foto Biennal - Core & Special Events Guide 2013" (PDF). Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  3. ^ "Intimate Jottings". The Australian Women's Weekly. 17, (28). Australia, Australia. 17 December 1949. p. 19. Retrieved 5 March 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
  4. ^ "Family Notices". The Argus (Melbourne) (32, 481). Victoria, Australia. 9 October 1950. p. 9. Retrieved 5 March 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
  5. ^ Newton, Gael. Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988. Sydney: Australian National Gallery, William Collins, 1988, p.131.
  6. ^ a b "Jack Cato's Melbourne: An Interview with John Cato". Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  7. ^ Willis, Anne-Marie (1988). Picturing Australia: A History of Photography. London, United Kingdom: Angus & Robertson Publishers. p. 222. ISBN 0207155992.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Cox, Paul; Gracey, Bryan (2013). John Cato : retrospective. Melbourne, Vic: Wilkinson Publishing. ISBN 9781922178091.
  9. ^ "Ballarat International Foto Biennal - Core & Special Events Guide 2013" (PDF). Retrieved 24 March 2015.
  10. ^ Stieven-Taylor, Alison (10 August 2013). "Nature's gentle man". The Australian. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  11. ^ Newton, Gael (1988). Shades of Light. Canberra: Australian National Gallery. p. 148. ISBN 0642081522.
  12. ^ Willis, Anne-Marie (1988). Picturing Australia: A History of Photography. London, United Kingdom: Angus & Robertson Publishers. p. 235. ISBN 0207155992.
  13. ^ a b c Ballarat International Foto Biennale. Ballarat: Ballarat International Foto Biennale Inc. 2013. p. 4. ISBN 9780992305505.
  14. ^ Newton, Gael (1988). Shades of Light. Canberra: Australian National Gallery. p. 149. ISBN 0642081522.
  15. ^ a b c d Stieven-Taylor, Alison (10 August 2013). "Nature's gentle man". The Australian. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  16. ^ "NGV - John Cato". National Gallery of Victoria - John Cato. National Gallery of Victoria. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  17. ^ Willis, Anne-Marie (1988). Picturing Australia: A History of Photography. London, United Kingdom: Angus & Robertson Publishers. p. 219. ISBN 0207155992.
  18. ^ "Thais ignore exhibition". The Canberra Times. 47, (13, 501). Australian Capital Territory, Australia. 31 July 1973. p. 11. Retrieved 5 March 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
  19. ^ "LIFE STYLE". The Canberra Times. 49, (13, 918). Australian Capital Territory, Australia. 21 November 1974. p. 14. Retrieved 5 March 2016 – via National Library of Australia.
  20. ^ "Life through unvarnished lens". The Sydney Morning Herald. 21 February 2011. Retrieved 20 April 2015.
  21. ^ Australian Photography Conference (1977 : University of Sydney); Working Papers on Photography (Firm); Nickson, Matthew; McGillvray, Euan (1980), Australian Photography Conference : conference papers, WOPOP, ISBN 978-0-9594596-0-9