The Cazneaux Tree

caz_my_picThere’s an old majestic river red gum tree somewhere in the Flinders Ranges (South Australia) near Wilpena Pound called the Cazneaux Tree. It got its name from photographer, Harold Cazneaux, whose 1937 photograph of it has become legendary. Cazneaux regarded it as his most Australian picture and called it The Spirit of Endurance.

In 1941, Cazneaux wrote of his famous photo:

“This giant gum tree stands in solitary grandeur on a lonely plateau in the arid Flinders Ranges, South Australia, where it has grown up from a sapling through the years, and long before the shade from its giant limbs ever gave shelter from heat to white men. The passing of the years has left it scarred and marked by the elements - storm, fire, water, - unconquered, it speaks to us from a Spirit of Endurance. Although aged, its widespread limbs speak of a vitality that will carry on for many more years. One day, when the sun shone hot and strong, I stood before this giant in silent wonder and admiration. The hot wind stirred its leafy boughs, and some of the living elements of this tree passed to me in understanding and friendliness expressing The Spirit of Australia.”

I had never heard of it until July 2009, while researching for my then imminent Big Trip North. I think it cropped up as a picture when I was looking at Wilpena Pound on Google Earth. I didn’t think much about it at the time. The picture said no more about it than the caption “Spirit of Endurance”. I thought it was simply some passing tourist’s title for his or her photo. I guess, in a way, it was.

cazneaux_nsw_gallery-001A few days later, I opened my Weekend Australian, over Saturday breakfast, as I do every Saturday, and, paging through the glossy Magazine that comes with it, soon found myself looking at a half-page photo of the Cazneaux Tree! I could almost feel a shiver in my spine at the creepy coincidence, particularly having never encountered the tree or its name before.

While not one to be superstitious, I suddenly felt a need to learn about this tree and to ensure I would see and photograph it while in the Flinders Ranges on my planned trip north. With the help of Google, I soon discovered that Cazneaux was an award-winning photographer, born in New Zealand in 1878 of Australian parents, lived in Adelaide until 1904, then moved to Sydney, where he died in 1955. His Spirit of Endurance photo won national and international awards.

Cazneauxtree_nat_librOne curious puzzle arose during my Internet searches on the tree. I came across twoversions of Cazneaux’s photograph, one held by the National Library of Australia (on its site), the other by the Art Gallery of NSW (on its site). But there was something odd about them. It took me a few looks to realise that they were reversed. Every detail of the two photos was identical, but one was a mirror image of the other.

The photo in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW has this connotation in its description:

Cazneaux flipped the negative he shot of this tree in the enlarger as he felt it best expressed what he was after in the final image.

The original (unflipped) version is the one held by the National Library. It’s also the version in all the other photos.

The tree has obviously changed dramatically over the more than seventy years since Cazneaux photographed it. The changes can be readily seen in the photo I took.


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