Nanette Kuehn: the forgotten photographer

This article first appeared in the winter 2011 edition of SL, the magazine of the State Library of New South Wales

Nanette Kuehn is the mystery woman of Australian photography. The young German migrant sailed into Sydney two years before the outbreak of the Second World War, fell in love with ballet and theatre, took her camera into darkened auditoriums over a period of only five years, then disappeared from public life.

Kuehn was so modest, so unassuming, that even close family members knew nothing of her passion for dance and drama.

Her brief life as a professional photographer began in Sydney when Kuehn spent many evenings close to the Theatre Royal’s stage, photographing performances of the Ballets Russes companies that excited Australian audiences in the late 1930s.

By the end of the war, her career was over. Her legacy remains in one book, the large format Balletomanes’ Art Book, in numerous performance photographs in the Mitchell Library of the State Library of New South Wales, and in three photograph collections donated to the National Library of Australia.

Kuehn also shot portraits, most notably of Anton Dolin – the charismatic star of the 1938 Covent Garden Russian Ballet tour of Australia.

Her best known photo is of a heavily made up Dolin in David Lichine’s The Prodigal Son, a ballet that had its world premiere at the Theatre Royal in December 1938.

The following month, Kuehn’s first photo exhibition opened in Sydney with a speech by the Ballets Russes’ dancer, Marian Ladre [his anglicised name].

“When we are dancing we often hear cameras clicking”, he said, “but we do not mind if the results are always as good as these”. The photographs of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet, taken in performance, were exhibited at the Independent Theatre clubrooms.

“All the photographs were taken by Miss Nanette Kuehn, a Continental photographer, who recently arrived in Australia”, reported The Sydney Morning Herald.

National Archives of Australia records show that “Nanette Anni Kuehn – Nationality: German – Arrived Sydney per Esquilino on 23 Feb 1937”. (Later references of her marriage and death give her middle name as Cecile. The Esquilino was an Italian passenger ship).

In May 1939, the Herald reported the arrival of another Italian ship, Remo, carrying passengers from Germany, Poland, Hungary, Britain, Greece, Estonia, Finland, Yugoslavia, Rumania and Albania.

Many were Jewish, and desperate to escape Europe in the months before the war. Among them was an 82 year old who claimed to be the oldest refugee to come to Australia.

He was Sigmund Rau of Nuremberg, who, the Herald reported, was accompanied by his daughter, Helen, and met at the dock, “by his granddaughter, Nanette Kuhn [sic] who has been in Sydney for some time, and by his sister in law, Mrs Rosa Rau, whom he had never before seen. Mr Rau’s brother came to Australia 50 years ago and died last year.

“My life’s work is finished”, Mr Rau said. “I established factories in Nuremberg, where I was born, and employed hundreds of men and women. I manufactured medals and buttons for the German army, and jewellery. My factories no longer belong to me…I have nothing left but my family, and I shall spend the rest of my days with them”.

At this time, Nanette lived in Bellevue Hill but in 1940, gave her address as 242 Pitt Street in Sydney.
She may have rented a office rather than a studio at that address, as Kuehn preferred the immediacy of live performance photography.

This went against the contemporary trends, when studio portraiture of dancers was widely practised by such well known photographers as Maurice Seymour in Chicago, Baron and Gordon Anthony in Britain, Barbara Morgan in the United States, and Max Dupain and Athol Shmith in Australia – although the Ballets Russes’ visits did attract a new group of Australian enthusiasts who took photos of live performances, among them the talented amateur, Walter Stringer.

Kuehn’s work attracted favourable reviews for the way in which she “enshrined many lovely moments in Les Sylphides, Cendrillon, Cent Baisers, and other productions… She has aimed above all, at an effect of motion.

“Some of the results are very striking indeed. Riabouchinska advancing towards the footlights in the Les Sylphides’ prelude; the same dancer doing a pirouette and an arabesque in Aurora’s Wedding; the wild leaps of the Cockerel in Le Coq d’Or, Baronova swirling round in Les Femmes de Bonne Humeur – these are typical subjects”. [The Sydney Morning Herald, January 11, 1939.]

In 1939, Kuehn had two more exhibitions, one opened in March by Anton Dolin at the Riddell Galleries in Little Collins Street and the next in April at the Australian Art Gallery in Rundle Street, Adelaide.

The best 14 images of her ballet portfolio were published in her Balletomanes’ Art Book published in 1940 by the London Book Company and retailing for 10 shillings.

The Argus described the book as “an attractive souvenir and a useful reference book…studio portraits of dancers have little of the atmosphere of ballet, and these action studies are much more evocative.

“The studies were taken during performances in Sydney by Nanette Kuehn and her eye for effective grouping and lighting is infallible”.

Records at the State Library of NSW show that Kuehn went on to photograph two productions of J C Williamson, the revue, Funny Side Up, in 1941, and the play The Man Who Came to Dinner, the following year.

Then Kuehn disappeared from public view except for a portrait in The Argus of Toni Jacoby, the young daughter of Ian Jacoby and his wife, Elsa Stenning, a former singer and musical comedy-star.

By then, Kuehn was Mrs Kassel, having married Franz Solomon Kassel at the Great Synagogue in Sydney, on November 16, 1944. Kassel, also a German refugee, arrived in Adelaide on the Ormande in May 1937, the same month as Kuehn arrived in Sydney.

He began his new life by making and marketing fruit juices in South Australia but later, in Sydney, launched Kassel Wines. Kuehn worked with him in the business. The couple had no children and made their home in Chatswood.

Kassel’s nephew, Steve Center of Sydney, said that Kuehn gave up her career as a photographer and “never spoke of it” in family gatherings.

She died of breast cancer in June 1980 aged 69. (Her widower died eight years later.)

Nanette Kuehn’s death is recorded at the Great Synagogue but perhaps her soul lies elsewhere, safely stored at the Mitchell Library and the National Library of Australia.

Nanette Kuehn, photo by Max Dupain, c1940, ON249, Box 19, No.21

David Lichine, portrait by Nanette Kuehn, courtesy State Library of NSW,
PXD 1063, Box 5

Nanette Kuehn and Franz Kessel (centre) on their wedding day, 16 November, 1944, photo courtesy Kuehn family

Balletomane’s Art Book, 1940, F792.80994/2, Tatiana Riabouchinska and Paul Petroff in Paganini, State Library of NSW