John Cato Retrospective

John CatoJohn Cato was once of the first photographers in Australia to consider the lyrical and poetic aspects of landscape and to create extended series of photographic essays.

He wanted to ‘explore the elements of landscape’ and gave himself 10 years to complete his study, two years for each of the five elements. His practice would take him into the desert for extended periods of time.

He would spend 40 days, seeing, observing and waiting for the perfect conditions for the shot, on one occasion exposing 3 rolls of film and being satisfied enough to use only 11 photographs from them.

These powerful images, free of manipulation, capture the essential qualities of natural elements and indeed how John Cato saw the world.

This exhibition of work from 1971-1991 honours the achievement of John Cato as mentor and as teacher. It pays homage to his significant contribution of photography in Australia.

John Cato was born in Hobart, Tasmania in 1926. From the age of 12 years he was apprenticed to his father the photographer, Jack Cato.

John Cato had been a press photographer with the Argus newspaper and a commercial photographer in partnership with Athol Shmith for 20 years before experiencing ‘a kind of menopause’.

He walked away from a successful career, quietly burned all his commercial work and became an educator and fine art photographer. Cato was involved in the foundation years of the Photography Studies College, still in South Melbourne, and a lecturer there and at Prahran College of Advanced Education becoming Department Head in 1979 until he returned in 1991 by which time it was called Victoria College.

He felt ‘duty bound’ to hand on his experience. He loved teaching and he was a much-loved teacher. Many of his past students are now highly regarded photographers, among them, Bill Henson, Polly Borland, Julie Millowick, Andrew Chapman and Nino Martinetti, whilst others hold important positions in universities and art institutions around Australia.

Cato exhibited nationally and internationally in solo and group exhibitions and his work is featured in many public collections, including the National Gallery of Australia, the National Gallery of Victoria and the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.

Two years after his death, John Cato remains piercingly vivid to his friends. Acclaimed Melbourne filmmaker Paul Cox recalls: “John was passionate with the people he loved. Closed, shy and silent with the people he didn’t know or couldn’t love.”

“He was not ambitious in a worldly sense. He had his eyes on the bigger picture.”

The Ballarat International Foto Biennale runs from 17 August – 15 September 2013. For more information, visit: for details.

Image: John Cato