Photographer – John Masterson, CSIRO Division of Radiophysics

September 29th, 2020

In former years many of CSIRO's Division's employed photographers to record Divisional and regional activities. Due to their skill and dedication many of the wonderful archival photos that are added to publications, CSIRO activities and displays still survive. This article is about John Masterson, photographer for the CSIRO Radiophysics Laboratory.

This article is about John Masterson, photographer for the CSIRO Radiophysics Laboratory.  Many examples of John’s photos can be viewed at the ATNF CSIRO Radio Astronomy Image Archive which I strongly recommend readers take a look at some stage.

The following words are taken from the ATNF 2009 Newsletter and celebrates John’s life and career with the Division.

“The photographic collection of the Radiophysics Laboratory contains more than 13,000 sets of items. Although the names of the photographers were not always recorded, many, perhaps most, were the work of photographer John Masterson, who died in April this year, aged 73. Forty of those 73 years were spent working for the CSIRO Radiophysics Laboratory and its offshoots, the Division of Cloud Physics, the ATNF and the precursors of the ICT Centre.

And they were forty years of, not just work, but of service.  John joined the Laboratory in June 1957, at the age of 22. The Radiophysics Laboratory, created in 1940, was then still in its original home, the Madsen building at the University of Sydney. During the war, every piece of equipment the Laboratory produced had been photographed, says Phil Sharp, site coordinator for Property Services at Marsfield. The practice persisted into peacetime, and there was enough work for four photographers and an assistant. John started work as a Technical Assistant, level 1. He had completed the only photographic course available at the time, that of the School of Applied Photography in Sydney. One of the attractions of the Radiophysics position was that the Laboratory’s Senior Photographer, Ken Nash, offered a system of training similar to that for newspaper cadets: a mixture of technical reading, practical instruction, and on the job training. During 1960–1963 John was called up to do a wider range of tasks for Radiophysics and, increasingly, for other CSIRO Divisions. In this period he was awarded The Sun Trophy at the Sydney International Exhibition of Photography, for the best entry by an Australian. By 1963 John was second-in-charge of the department,\ and had sole responsibility for the photographic coverage of the new observatory and radioheliograph near Narrabri, now the home of the Compact Array. When Radiophysics moved to its Marsfield site in 1968, the photolab was located in what is now Wing G. Ken Nash’s health was deteriorating, and John took increasing responsibility for running the photolab, finally becoming its head in 1974 when Nash retired.

With respect to his craft, John was a professional from beginning to end. Ken Nash — an “artsy” type, according to former ATNF Assistant Director John Brooks — believed in making images that were beautiful as well as technically informative: John learned a lot from him, and was influenced by his style. He always knew what was wanted, what a photograph needed to show, according to Phil Sharp. “Some of the stuff we had photographed was very tricky, with small components. He’d spend hours working on that,” said Mal Sinclair, a former head of the ATNF Receiver Group. “The work John did for the Division of Cloud Physics, photographing experiments in cloud chambers, was extremely difficult.” In the course of his career John had to devise photographic solutions to a diverse range of problems, from counting and grading ice crystals to making high-speed studies of cutting tools on experimental lathes, 24-hour monitoring of weather radar results, and the printing of complex colour outputs from spectrographs. An important part of his work in the 1980s was reduction photography of circuit layouts for solid-state devices. In its early days, Radiophysics had operated a number of field stations, such as the one at Dapto, and John made frequent trips to those. He worked with Ken Nash to capture the construction and early days of the Parkes telescope. Later, when the Compact Array was being built, he took essentially all of the still photographs recording its construction.

This care and attention to detail were appreciated: Despite the fact that CSIRO and this Division have only recently paid much heed to personal credits on published photographs quite a few people sought me out by name and congratulated us on the quality and obvious professionalism of the work coming from the Radiophysics’ Communication Group.  “John was not an empire builder,” said Shaun Amy, Head of Computing Infrastructure for the ATNF, and himself a keen photographer. “He recognised he was in a service role, and dedicated himself to that.” John knew a lot, and was pleased to share that knowledge, Shaun says. Over the years John’s services and advice were called upon not only by Radiophysics but also by several other CSIRO Divisions, a range of departments at the University of Sydney (Civil, Electrical and Aeronautical Engineering; Geography and Tropical Medicine), Lewisham Hospital, and even the NSW Forestry Department. In the mid 1970s John was instrumental in forming the NSW Photographers Group, and helped organise the first national conference for CSIRO photographers.

For the Radiophysics Laboratory, he had created a body of work recording four decades of its history: for himself, he had attained long experience in micro/macro/ scientific/industrial/portrait field aerial and illustrative photography, cine and video techniques including editing and audio mixing [,] and … experience in what the Division needs in the application of these techniques while still retaining an openness to and keen interest in the need for constant reappraisal and change where necessary.  In his community, John worked for many, and made himself known and loved: more than 200 people came to his funeral. His most important legacy, however, is in the lives of his family: his wife, children, grandchildren and great-grand-children”.