From the frontline to 1969: government photographer Clifford Bottomley

Emily Catt
Sunday, 1 December 2019

While some government photographers, such as Max Dupain, have been recognised for their artistic skill, others with similar talents have been lost to history. Curator Emily Catt invites us to meet Clifford Bottomley, who used his creativity to compose photographs with visual impact.

For a man who took more than 7000 photographs for the Australian Government, we know surprisingly little about Clifford Bottomley.

When we first meet him in the collection, it is 1942 and he is in his mid-30s. His accredited war correspondent papers describe him as sturdy and broad, 5'6" tall, weighing 11 stone, with hazel eyes and fair hair. A scar under his left wrist is noted under 'distinctive marks'. At the end of his career, a rare photograph of him, taken at his retirement celebrations, shows Bottomley in his early 60s, jovial and flushed, surrounded by cheerful colleagues and well-wishers.

The records show he originally joined the public service in 1940 as a photographer for the Department of Information's Official Photographic and Film Unit. The following year he left Australia as an Accredited War Correspondent with the Allied Land Forces in the South-West Pacific area. His early photographic career was captured in his war records and newspapers of the time. In 1945 he was awarded the Philippine Liberation Ribbon for his coverage of the Leyte campaign in the Philippines.

Photographs from the frontline

During his time as a war photographer Bottomley covered the Pacific extensively. His work included the landing of US General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, and the Malayan and New Guinea campaigns, covering events from the frontline.

On his return to Australia, Bottomley continued working for the Department of information and later the Australian News and Information Bureau. It was during this time that he took the thousands of images now held by the National Archives. Bottomley's role as a public servant largely eclipsed his artistic skills – a challenge faced by many of the photographers employed the Australian News and Information Bureau.

While the subjects taken by these photographers were dictated by the needs of various government departments, many photographers, including Bottomley, still flexed their artistic muscle, using elements such as light and composition, to capture images that were visually impressive – as well as fit for the required purpose.

In 1969 Bottomley retired from the Australian News and Information Bureau in Melbourne and passed away in 1981. While recognised for his wartime photography, Bottomley's work as a government photographer has often been overlooked or dismissed as propaganda. It is clear however that he had a knack for negotiating the tricky terrain between creating government images and taking photographs of artistic merit.