Valentin Sowada 1932 – 2012
was born in Switzerland in 1932 and raised in the alpine village of Château-d’Oex. As a teenager living in Lausanne, he completed an apprenticeship in photography that involved all fields of the trade, including x-rays and chemistry.
In 1949 he left Switzerland and went to North Africa to work as a photojournalist. This included assignments for various newspapers, agencies and magazines, covering the wars of independence in Morocco, Algeria and other events. After four years, he travelled to Paris and worked in commercial photography, also taking many pictures of the city. He was influenced by the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and other photographers working in Paris during the early 1950s. In 1955, a little tired of Europe, Valentin acquired a strong pair of shoes and hitchhiked from Paris to Australia. Eleven months after leaving Paris and many photographs later, he arrived at Broome in Western Australia. Valentin met his future wife Helen in Sydney and obtained a job as an X-ray and Gamma Ray Technician with the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme.
For two years he worked in the Snowy Mountains, then returned to Sydney and worked as a staff photographer for Qantas Airways for a number of years. His photographs were regularly featured in magazines and trade publications. During this time, he also took pictures for André Simon’s The Wines, Vineyards and Vignerons of Australia, a chronicle about the fledgling Australian wine industry.
Valentin’s photography during the 1960s captured Sydney at the nexus of its conversion from a bustling city to major international metropolis, as the Modernist Movement transformed the cityscape. Sydney city and the Rocks, Sydney’s beach culture, King’s Cross, the structural beauty of men and their constructions, and the entertainments of suburban life dominate the subject matter of Valentin’s pictures from this era.
They display the voyeuristic eye of the photojournalist on one hand, and Valentin’s own interest in the humour of daily life and the romanticism of Sydney in the 1960s. In the 1970s Valentin’s photographic emphasis shifted.
For a long time he had thought of developing photographs on surfaces other than paper. Through various experiments he invented a light-sensitive emulsion to reproduce photographic images on different surfaces. This proved a success, and, finally in business on his own, Valentin’s work revolved around the production of large photographic murals for display. Much of this work was produced in his 2,000 sq. m. darkroom, an old WWII bomb shelter in Taylor Square, Sydney. Major projects included photographs on canvas for the Los Angeles Qantas sales office in 1971, the Australian Pavilion at the Okinawa Expo (Japan) in 1975 and the Australian History Exhibition for the US Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. People experimenting with new artistic mediums, including well-known Australian artist Julie Rrap, also used his photo emulsion.
At the same time, Valentin began acquiring a substantial quantity of old negatives and historic photographs, initially for use in mural work. Over the years, the collection grew to a substantial size. When the task of producing large murals seemed all too much, Valentin and Helen re-focussed their work on to the sale of photographic reproductions of old historical photographs based on their collection. They began at the Paddington Markets in 1984, and now have their niche at The Rocks Market in Sydney.
Despite having known little of family as a boy, he cherished his home life in Australia. Valentin Sowada died in Sydney on May 16 after a long illness. He is survived by Helen and their three children and seven grandchildren.
Exhibitions and Museum Display
CreditsUtzon Centre, Aaalborg, Denmark ‘The Big Picture’, Sydney Morning Herald 175th Anniversary Exhibition, Hyde Park, Sydney, 8-24 April 2006.
Bamboo Café and Gallery, Gould Street, BondiBeach, October 2000.
‘Sydney in the Sixties’ for the Sydney Cove Authority, Coach House, Kendall Lane, The Rocks, April 1996. Photo credits – Books A. Watson (ed.), Building a Masterpiece: the Sydney Opera House, (Powerhouse Publishing: Sydney, 2006), 13, 126, 134, 171. M. Prisk, T. Stephens and M. Bowers (eds), The Big Picture. Diary of a Nation (Sydney, 2005), 58-9, and accompanying CD.
Australian Wine Board, Wine Australia – a Guide to Australian Wine (Nelson: Netley, 1968)A. Simon, The Wines, Vineyards and Vignerons of Australia (Landsdowne Press: Melbourne, 1966)
– Newspapers and Magazines‘Travel’, The Sun-Herald, 25 June 2006, 33.‘Goodbye Dogmen’, The Weekend Australian Magazine, 8-9 April 2006, 42.‘Variety and action are always close to the heart of Sowada’, photo essay in Camera World International, Vol. 3/6 (1966), 8-11.
Cover picture and photo essay on Bondi Beach, Qantas Airways Magazine, Vol. 32/1 (1966), 1-11.
Cover pictures for Qantas Airways Magazine 33/4 (1967), 32/11 (1966) and photo essay on New Caledonia [whole issue].‘Sydney Opera House Symposium’, photographs by Jozef Vissel, Max Dupain and Val Sowada, Camera World International, Vol. 3/1 (1965), 18-21.
‘Successor to the Bridge?’, photo essay on Australia Square, Camera World International, Vol. 2/5 (1965), 31-33.‘Continental’, photo essay on Kings Cross, Camera World International, Vol. 2/12 (1965), 18-21.‘A Pithy Masculine Viewpoint’, photo essay on city life in Camera World International, Vol. 2/10 (1965), 16-18.‘Les ballets africaines’, Camera World International, Vol. 3/2 (1965), 12-15.
Cover picture, Industrial Photography and Commercial Camera Magazine, Vol. 3/2 (1964).‘The Graphic Motif’, Camera World International, Vol. 2/4 (1964), 32-3.Cover and photo essay on the Snowy Mountains Scheme, Qantas Airways Magazine, Vol. 29/2 (1963) [whole magazine].
Cover picture for Qantas Airways Magazine, Vol. 28/8 (1962) [with Reg Horner].
In addition, there have been numerous newspaper and trade journal articles about the work of Valentin Sowada over the years.