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SHADES OF LIGHT online

Based on text from the original book: Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988
Gael Newton, 1988 Australian National Gallery

CHAPTER 8

AMATEURS AND THE PORTRAIT AND VIEWS TRADE IN THE 1890s— I920s

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The last generation

The amateur Pictorialists were not alone in introducing fashionable soft-focus effects to their portraits, some professionals also responded. H.Walter Barnett (1862—1934) was born in Melbourne and apprenticed to Stewart’s, a Melbourne portrait studio in 1875, where he formed a lifetime friendship with Tom Roberts, who was working there as a studio assistant. Barnett was trained as a camera operator and reputedly never engaged in the printing side of the work. He established a studio with a partner, Riis, in Hobart in 1880—1882 then gained experience in overseas studios before setting up the Falk studio in Sydney in 1885. He travelled frequently to keep up with new techniques and Falk studio was able to monopolise society and theatre portraiture. In 1898 Barnett moved to London where he established a fashionable studio in Hyde Park. By May 1899 he became the first and only Australian to be elected to The Linked Ring Brotherhood(1).

Barnett’s 1892 portrait of Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales, shows some of the new softness used to dramatic effect. Barnett, if not a printer, as photohistorian Jack Cato claims(2) had a flair for male portraiture in addition to his great success as a society portraitist in London. He moved to Dieppe, France, in 1916 where he continued making portraits, including a very fine series of the characters around the town, such as The old locksmith. These exploited the effective use of lighting evident in his 1890s work(3).

Professional photographers in the l880s and l890s began to respond to the more elaborate pictures, particularly the genre tableaux being shown at the amateur exhibitions. J. Brooks Thornley (w.1898-1900) who was camera operator for Barnett at Falk Studio in Sydney, produced several genre pieces with themes such as “Jealousy”(4).

James Taylor (1846-1917) of Adelaide, sold a number of narrative tableaux featuring staged battles between whites and Aboriginals, as well as a studio tableau showing Constables Willshire and Wurmbrand with native police in the camp at Alice Springs This image commemorated the capture in 1887, of some Aboriginals by these constables. The Port Augusta Despatch of 24 January 1888 described Taylor’s tableau as a ‘picturesque cabinet' which transcended its ‘predecessors in artistic finish and intrinsic interest’. The truth of the events depicted depended on the viewpoint of the spectator, missionaries for example, regarded Willshire as a ruthless murderer(5).

Commissioned series of photographs of industrial projects also acquired an extra dimension of glamour and drama. J. Duncan Pierce (w.1887) made a series of views of the BHP plant in 1887(6) that included ambitious underground shots of the miners at work. Electric lighting and flash powder made low-light subjects possible around the turn of the century, and many leading studios tackled interior scenes.

Theatre companies were a particularly popular subject for photographers taking flashlight portraits, adding to the already considerable market for portraits of theatrical performers, the ‘pop stars’ of their day. Barnett specialised in theatrical personalities.

The Queensland Railways Department also commissioned an extensive series of photographs, covering the rebuilding of the Indooroopilly Bridge in 1893. The photographs were possibly taken by Government Photographer CES Fryer (w.c. 1880s-1900)(7). The mammoth plate albumen prints are very rich and give more prominence to the workers than is common in such official work. This may have been due to the unusual nature of some of their activities for which they used diving suits.

There were probably several hundred amateur photographers in the 1890s associated with the various societies and others who were unaffiliated and were interested chiefly in creating chronicles of their families. Although thousands of women were employed in the mass production of portraits in the city studios, the surviving bodies of amateur work before the early twentieth century are predominantly by men(8).

Photographic societies around the country organised exhibitions so that amateurs could have the opportunity of displaying their work. In 1895 members of the South Australian Photographic Society were represented in the South Australian Chamber of Manufacturers Exhibition of Art and Industry. This show was significant for its mixed hanging of photographs and traditional works of art. One exhibitor of prints and stereographs was H.H. Tilbrook (1848-1937), founder of the Northern Argus newspaper in South Australia. Tilbrook was not allied with the ‘fuzzy wuzzies’ of the turn of the century but his late platinotype prints had a distinctive style(9).

Judge Ernest Docker (1839-1923), President of the New South Wales Photographic Society from 1894-1907, (whose father had experimented with the calotype in 1850) had reported on photography in Australia to the British Journal of Photography in the 1870s. He found his forte as a stereophotographer from the 1890s, making hundreds of views on his excursions and travels(10).

In Queensland, Walter Hume (1840-1921) recorded his family and activities on their Darling Downs property(11). While in Sydney, A.W.Allen (1862-1941) had also begun his long photographic reportage of his family. His series of albums dating from 1899 through to the 1920s are one of the earliest to have the flavour of the informal ‘snapshot’ without the poor quality that often limits the appeals of family photographs(12).

In Tasmania the leading amateurs in the Northern Tasmanian Society were Frank Styant Browne (1854-1938) and A.Harold Masters (1874-1951), who were both long-serving members. Browne was a chemist and followed the developments of overseas Pictorialists without adopting the soft-focus or overt stylisation of their examples(13). He was particularly interested in technical advances and with Masters, an architect and teacher, made the first X-ray photographs in Tasmania in 1896 and in 1897 Styant Browne was one of the earliest demonstrators of colour photography in Australia(14).

The professional studio photographers may have viewed the massive democratisation of photography in the 1890s with disdain but they would hardly have felt there was any competition. The studios were turning out even more portraits and views than ever for the same reasons as prompted the growth in amateur output; the dry plate, the concentration of people in the cities, and the opening up of a views trade associated with tourism. Each major city had a few studios providing the bulk of views from their state but the best known of the new generation of masters of the genre at the turn of the century were; J.W.Beattie in Tasmania, and Charles Kerry and Henry King of Sydney(15). Born within a few years of each other in the late 1850s, their careers began in the late 1880s, paralleling the growth of Pictorialism, then dwindled by the First World War which brought an end to the views trade.

Scottish-born John Beattie (1859-1930) arrived in Tasmania with his parents in 1878(16). The dry plate arrived at the same time and by 1879 Beattie was on an expedition to Lake St Clair taking dry plate views, the first of the region and some of the earliest in Australia(17).

He joined the Anson Brothers studio, established in 1878 when Henry, Richard and Joshua Anson bought out Samuel Clifford’s studio in Hobart. Beattie in turn bought out the Ansons in 1891. He was dedicated both to the history of Tasmania and to the promotion of its scenic wonders. Beattie trekked into regions which had not been photographed, or were unlikely to be visited by tourists due to the ruggedness of the terrain, bringing back images which created a public image of the island’s great wilderness beauty. After 1896 Beattie had the status of an official photographer to the Tasmanian Government and was a member of the Tourist Association, producing a number of illustrated guides to the country.

He was most comfortable with direct landscape photography, with a good range of tone and simple compositions. He avoided the genre tableaux that animated many of Caires photographs and the mythologies of the bushmen which they supported. Despite his government activities Beattie, like Caire, was not just in the business of making views. In 1907 Beattie declared the strip of land reserved on either side of the Gordon River ‘totally inadequate to protect the river ... all the hillsides immediately fronting the river should be reserved’(18). The Tasmanian Wilderness Society in the 1980s shares this view and uses photography as a vehicle to promote the preservation of the environment.


Charles Kerry (1858-1928) was born on his father’s sheep station near Cooma, in the Monaro uplands, close to the Australian alpine region of Mount Kosciusko. This pastoral background may account for the specialty which his Sydney studio later developed in views of such properties, sheep shearing and artesian bores. He had a lifelong interest in prospecting and eventually retired in 1911 to take up tin mining in Malaysia. A keen sportsman, Kerry was active in the establishment of Mount Kosciusko as a winter sports centre(19).

Originally intending to be a surveyor, Charles Kerry joined A.H.Lamartine’s studio in Sydney as an apprentice in 1875 and established his own studio in 1884. The height of the studio’s output was during the 1890s when, using a number of travelling photographers, Kerry provided the rural properties with portraits and views and in turn sold pastoral images to the city folk. He was quick to exploit the postcard extension of the views trade, which boomed just after the turn of the century. By 1903 his firm had a stock of 50,000 postcards which ensured their monopoly of the local market(20).

Kerry left the social and glamour portraits and the luxury prints to his contemporary rivals at Falk studio, and concentrated on a kind of pioneer photojournalism, sending his staff to photograph anything of topical interest and specialising in having the first prints available to the public in that pre-television era. One of the most talented of his field operators was George Bell (w.1887-c.1920) who had trained as a surveyor, been a photographer for the New South Wales Government expedition on board the Victory to New Guinea in 1887, and done some press photography before joining Kerry and Co in 1890. He left to join the Sydney Mail in 1900 as the first generation of the magazine’s in-house press photographers(21).

Harold Bradley (1875-1953) and Wilhelm van der Velden (1877-1954) were Kerry’s later chief field photographers(22). Wilhelm van der Velden made a number of panoramas, including one of the arrival of the ‘Great White Fleet’ of American war ships in 1908. Kerry had imported a Cirkut panoramic camera for such work(23).

Grand panoramic views in one piece had already been made of Sydney in 1904 by the American photographer, Melvin Vaniman (c.1870-1912). Vaniman visited Australia and New Zealand and worked also on commission from a shipping company as an itinerant photographer specialising in panoramic views. He imported a Cirkut camera and a balloon that he used to make a 360 degree view of Sydney from the North Shore in early 1904. He made numerous other panoramas from conventional high structures that were printed on platinum paper. Quite how he made a living from such luxurious craftsmanship some panoramas were over a metre long, is not evident(24). Vaniman died in his balloon the Akron in 1912 during an attempt to cross the Atlantic. Panoramas remained popular until the 1920s, but by then degenerated into rather hack works with little of the quality of the nineteenth and early twentieth century versions(25).

Henry King (1855-1923), also of Sydney, was more like his Melbourne contemporary, Nicholas Caire, than Charles Kerry, in that he largely operated alone and on a smaller scale than the latter’s pictorial conveyer belt. King, however, was the poet of the city not the bush. Born in England he arrived in Australia in 1857, with his family. After working for J.H.Newman’s studio, King set up his own business in 1880 with William Slade, and finally from 1895 under his own name. The subject matter of the views trade was determined by the interests of the public and so King produced the same basic fare as Kerry, although he did relatively little of the coverage of ‘news’ events in which Kerry’s studio specialised. King’s city and harbour pictures are more carefully framed and printed than Kerry’s. He favoured a dark foreground, or dark masses, to give extra drama. Both Kerry and King made extensive portraits of the Aboriginal people that ranged from brutal direct records of physiognomy to gentler images of mothers and children. From about the turn of the century King concentrated on outdoor work, including a series of shots by magnesium flash of the Jenolan Caves(26).

The older generation of views photographers were active almost to the close of the trade at around the time of World War One, when illustrated magazines provided cheaper views for the public and gave rise to a new breed of reportage and documentary photographers.

The major urban centres of the eastern states dominate this account, but studios specialising in views existed in most states. Their stories are still largely unresearched with the exception of Queensland(27) but they reflect the patterns set in the biggest cities.


List of illustrations used in the original publication (captions may be abbreviated):

P.75: H.Walter Barnett: Sie henry Parkes, 1892

P.76: James Taylor: Mounted Constables Wiltshire and Wurmbrand, 1887

P.76: J. Duncan Pierce: Miners at Bottom of Shaft, Broken Hill, 1887

P.77: Qld railways (attr C.E.S.Fryer): Indrooropilly Bridge, 1895

P.77: H.H.Tilbrook: The Monument, Spring Gulley, 1989

P.78: H.H.Tilbrook: Pelican point, spoils of the ocean, nr Bungalow, 1895

P.79: J.W.Beattie: Sunrise, Tasmania's Arch, Eagler Hawk Neck, c.1890

P.80-81: Kerry & Co: Shearing Time, Burrawang Station, NSW c.1895

P.82-83: Melvin Vaniman: Cnr Collins & Queen Sts, Melbourne 1904

P.83: Henry King: Curator, Jenolan Caves, NSW c.1900

 

 

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