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Reflections On Building The NGA's Asia-Pacific Photography Collection

Gael Newton AM

Essay originally published
TAASA Review Vol 24 No 1 March 2015
The Journal of the Asian Arts Society of Australia


Following her retirement in September 2014 as Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia, TAASA invited Gael Newton to review her last decade with the NGA, where she was responsible for the establishment of a survey collection of Asia-Pacific photography spanning from South Asia to the west coast of the Americas.

For this collection Newton located and negotiated the acquisition of several major private collections of Asia-Pacific photography including one of some 5000 colonial-era Indonesian photographs.

Gael Newton, Canberra.
Photo Courtesy Paul Costigan



When Ron Radford AM arrived in Canberra as Director of the NGA in late 2005,1 could not have imagined that the next decade of my life would be focussed chiefly on the history of photographic art across the Asia-Pacific region.

At our first meeting I tentatively proposed that the National Gallery develop a major collection-based show of Asia-Pacific photography. This was met with Radford's famed decibels of enthusiasm, reflecting his own embrace of Asian art as Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia.

At the outset of both our careers in the 1970s, Asian art had had little place in the few art history courses in Australia. But to put this in context, even Australian art history was not obligatory.

My first study of my homeland's art came through a stint working in 1974 as a research assistant to Professor Bernard Smith on one of his books. Smith's famed 1960 study European Vision in the South Pacific, ended with a note on photography more or less bringing the golden age of illustration to an end.

How wrong he was on that issue and how differently we now see the nuanced inter-relationship between Western art influences in the Asia-Pacific and indigenous artists traditions and responses in the 19th-20th centuries.

A catalyst in these developments for me had been in 1998 when our Australian National University graduate intern Malaysian art historian Raimy Che-Ross asked: "How many images of Asia and Asian-born photographers do you have?". Raimy's report on the slim list of Asian photographs by subject or maker in the National Gallery collection led me to try to expand the holdings on a regular basis.

An early acquisition in 1999 was a group of Asian images to add to the holdings of famed French photojournalist, Henri Cartier-Bresson. In 1998  the  Gallery  held  around  200  works made in Asia and only three Asian-born photographers: on my departure there were some 8000 works with many by named and celebrated but also unknown studio, amateur and family photographers.

Ignorance was bliss. I had no Asian languages, Asian or Pacific studies background, although I had experienced life in bi-cultural New Zealand and travelled to Hong Kong, Japan, China, and the Philippines. I had only a basic knowledge of Asian geography and cultures. That the National Gallery had great - and collaborative - Asian art curators was a comfort.

My adventure began on Boxing Day 2006 when my partner Paul Costigan pinned a map of the Asia-Pacific region over my desk. I hit the keyboard armed with a bibliography prepared by Gillian Currie in the National  Gallery  Research Library,  of what photographically-illustrated books and photo-histories on the region she could find.

The Gallery's Librarians were essential, no article or title seemed too obscure to be beyond their reach. The Library benefitted as well from the inclusion of over 100 photographically illustrated books on colonial Indonesia that came in 2007 as part of the Leo Haks Indonesian photographs collection.

The Research Library's holdings in this field, amplified by numerous purchases over the years, are now a significant resource for scholars. The Librarians were possibly glad to see me finally depart nine years later in September 2014!

What made such an Australia-based Asia-Pacific project possible was the internet and internet based translation programs. I began scouring online pictorial resources including museum and library catalogue databases, as well as ebay, dealer, rare book and auction house websites.

Much of the heritage of Asian photography is held in Europe in the archives of former colonial powers but also in USA collections resulting from American engagement in the Asia-Pacific from the 1850s and 60s. Fortunately digitisation of pictorial archives has been extensive in Euro-American institutions for two decades but as yet similar electronic resources in English in Asian archives are rare. The Singapore National Library Portal is useful.


Gusti Ngurah Ketut Jelantik,
Prince Of Buleleng With Entourage In Jakarta On The Visit Of Governor-General Lajw Sloet Van De Beele,
Woodbury & Page, 1864, Albumen Silver Photograph, Collection National Gallery Of Australia


Human resources were of course essential; my long time photo-department volunteers Robert Deane and Bernard Lilientahl, as well as our 2013 Australian National University intern Lisa Catt, contributed research papers. French intern Annabelle Lacour from the Ecole du Louvre, Paris, worked on the Haks collection in 2012. Her richly detailed, insightful 2014 MA thesis on the colonial era photographers of Bali is held in the Gallery Research Library.

Curator of Photography Anne O'Hehir followed mostly a 20th-21st century line in the program, visiting India on two occasions and curating several photo gallery displays of the collection of South and Southeast Asian historical and contemporary photographers.

My map-pinning partner was ever on hand with technical and practical assistance and research help. His own ebay photo collecting interests expanded to Asian vernacular material. National Gallery curators are not able to bid on ebay but a few sellers were prevailed on to accept the glacial pace of museum acquisition.

A very rare 1859 suite of photographs from the Franco-Spanish expedition to Tourane, Vietnam, for example was located via an ebay dealer, while rare large exhibition prints of Balinese by Swiss photojournalist Gotthard Schuh taken in 1938 were spotted late one night on an obscure Swiss collector /dealer's website.

Director Ron Radford had determined from the outset that acquiring private collections would enable the Gallery to make progress in the Asia-Pacific collection. He sent me to London to view the mostly South Asian photographic collection of Howard and Jane Ricketts and to Amsterdam to view the Leo Haks collection of colonial Indonesian photographs. Both collections were acquired in 2006-07.

  I Goesti Agoeng Bagoes Djelantik, Anakagoeng
Agoeng Negara, Karangasem, Bali, 1931, Unknown
Photographer, Gelatin Silver Photograph, 14.0 X 9.7 Cm,
Collection National Gallery Of Australia

The Leo Haks collection provided the bulk of the works shown in the 2014 exhibition, Garden of the East: photography in Indonesia 1850-s-1940s. Indeed the astuteness, vision and dedication of Haks and other serious collectors I have met with in Europe and Asia has been a great learning experience.

Museums often fawn over donor-collectors whilst seeing dealer-collectors as simple 'sellers' rather than significant researchers in their own right. Museums benefit greatly from the often decades long collecting by dealers of then unfashionable material which curators would not have had the institutional interest or support to acquire in small bits over the same period.

Surveying the most renowned professional studios in Asia formed the first goal of the Asia-Pacific project and key figures are now represented with large group of works. These include the prolific British photographer Samuel Bourne in India and the Europeans Raimund Stillfried and Felice Beato who played  a  major role in introducing studio photography into the treaty ports of Japan in the 1860s -80s.

The most comprehensive coverage in the National Gallery's Asia-Pacific collection is of the work of photographers in colonial Indonesia. The latter include works from the 1850s-1880s by the Java based studio founded by Walter Woodbury from Manchester, who found his calling in professional photography after a stint on the goldfields of Australia in the mid 1850s.

One much celebrated figure is Scottish photographer John Thomson whose fascination with Asia began when he was based in Singapore in the early 1860s. He soon abandoned studio work for documentation of life in the streets. He went on to effectively invent the modern travel photo book in the 1870s.

Others like German Herman Salzwedel who produced work of great artistic sensitivity in Java in the late 19th century or Charles Scowen who did lyrical views and plant studies in Sri Lanka, remain underrated. Such artists are not the primary innovators we celebrate in world histories but cultural relevance is not about firsts but about the exchange and domestication of new ideas.

  Portrait Of A Boy And Girl, Bikaner, Surajmal Studio, C. 1900,
Gift Of American Friends Of The National Gallery Of Australia, Inc, New York, NY USA, Made Possible With Support Of Mr David Knaus, 2014

Together with the sheer aesthetic delights of the Asia-Pacific project, what has been especially satisfying has been to build the holdings of key Asian-born photographers.

The National Gallery now holds a good representation of works by premier 19th and early 20th century photographers in Asia including Kassian Cephas in Indonesia, Lala Deen Dayal and Shapoor N. Bhedwar in India, Francis Chit of Thailand, Afong in Hong Kong, Kusakabe Kimbei and Kasumasa Ogawa in Japan and Eduardo Masferre in the Philippines.

Names are not everything; one of my favourite groups of works is the hand coloured early 20th century photographs by various Indian studios. This vernacular genre has a remarkable rich history in India to the present day.

From the 1890s to the present, most studio photographers in Indonesia have been of Chinese ethnicity.


  A Dancing-Girl Of Bali, Resting, Thilly Weissenborn,C 1925,
Photogravure 21.1 X 15.9 Cm, Collection National Gallery Of Australia


  Young Javanese Woman, Kassian Cephas C. 1 885,
Albumen Silver Photograph, 13.7 X 9.8 Cm, Collection National Gallery Of Australia


Few of these from the colonial era are well known internationally. Care was taken at the time however to identify those who had any personal profile or style such as the entrepreneurial Tan Tjie Lan in Jakarta. A number of photographers in Southeast Asia were Japanese but little study has been undertaken of the diaspora of Asian photographers across the region. A few Japanese photographers were present in most major ports.

Women photographers are rare indeed in mid 19th to mid 20th century Asia and the Pacific but Indonesian-born Dutch woman Thilly Weissenborn in Java in the 1920s-30s and German Hedda Hammer (later Morrison) in China and Sarawak are professionals represented by key bodies of work in the National Gallery collection. Both worked in a Pictorialist-documentary style.

A last acquisition of a group of lesser known Japanese Pictorialist art photographers from the 1920s-40s was also close to my heart. My career began with Australian Pictorialism and I retain a soft spot for the Romantic art photographers of the early to late 20th century.

The movement had a long but now forgotten life in Asia into the 1960s. The purchase enhanced the representation of the salon style art photographers across Asia which formed a subset goal of our ten year strategy. Asian Pictorialist photographers who followed trends in Europe and America are a project I hope to develop in future.

Compared to Euro-America, there are only a few innovators or artists with international impact from the Asia-Pacific indigenous photographers. Stepping back from this survey of Asia-Pacific photography, however, it became clear that the history of the first century of photography across Asia is rich and diverse.

It was a shock too to realise that the bulk of the hundreds of thousands of daguerreotypes and cased ambrotype wet-plate process portraits and views has vanished: we know these were produced in Asia, many for Royal households, from contemporary newspaper advertisements.

Some points of difference were revealed during the project research in the way photographic processes imported into Asia were taken up. Techniques like the cased ambrotype (a wet-plate negative turned to a unique positive image) had a vigorous late life in Japan from the 1870s-1890s though superseded internationally by photographs on paper by the 1870s. Hundreds of examples of middle to lower class Japanese portraits in neat kirri wood cases survive and are usually carefully inscribed with the sitter's name and the date.


Man Climbing The Front Entrance To Borobudur,
Kassian Cephas, 1872,
Albumen Silver Photograph, 22.2 X 16.1 Cm,
Collection National Gallery Of Australia

Writing in the Rain, FX Harsono
Still from colour video 2011
Collection National Gallery of Australia


It was also interesting to realise that Japan and then India had strong long running genres of hand coloured photographs, a minor genre in most other countries. The subtle transparent colour dyes of the many hand-coloured photographs exported from Japan in the mid to late 19th century Japan are arguably the finest expression of this practise worldwide.

Yet equally the exuberant water colours and gouache of Indian hand-coloured portraits and devotional prints in India have no parallel elsewhere. Chinese portrait studios in Hong Kong and Singapore had a specialty of producing rich decorative coloured portraits like traditional scroll paintings, painted from or over enlarged photographs.

The three genres are dramatically different and have no relationship. Japanese product seems to have been made in millions but chiefly for overseas customers and travellers rather than the domestic market, the Indian output was almost entirely for the Indian royalty and a middle class domestic market, while Chinese portraits could even be ordered from afar by sending a photograph.

Aspects of the National Gallery's new collection including representation of recent contemporary photomedia from Asia, were the subject of exhibits in the permanent photography gallery from 2009 to 2014.

A seminar in 2010 co-convened with Dr Luke Gartlan called Facing Asia: early studio portraiture in Asia was held in collaboration with the Australian National University and a later one on the Garden of the East exhibition was held in 2014. A selection of East Asia papers from Facing Asia is due for publication in 2015.

European and Asian curators and scholars of photography in the Asia-Pacific will I hope, find that the National Gallery has surprising and extensive works to offer.

The Leo Haks colonial Indonesian collection needs scholars to work on the rich holdings. A late acquisition of mine in 2014 was of four albums compiled by German photographer Tassilo Adams surveying his own work in Java in the 1920s. This resource is a dissertation in the waiting, perhaps one I will pursue on a future visit to New York to visit Adams's descendants.

Two Australian scholars Susie Protschky and artist Lushun Tan have already done studies of the over 100 Dutch East Indies family albums held as part of the Haks collection. Originally I had thought that the family albums might quietly be moved on to a social studies archive, being seemingly of low aesthetic value.

The interest of the scholars awakened the realisation of the quality and charm of this vernacular material. Family albums had a prime position in the Garden of the East exhibition.

Whatever the future direction of the collection at the National Gallery, in response to the question: "How many photographs of Asia do you have in the National Gallery of Australia?" we can now say: "Lots. Where do you want to start?".

The demands of projects for the 50th anniversary of the Republic of Singapore will consume much of my time in 2015. 1 will work towards a history of photography in insular Southeast Asia, particularly its Pictorial-ethnographic photographers like KF Wong, but also engage with the vibrant contemporary photomedia scene.

The region has a character of its own which gets lost among the grander better known narratives of photography in India, China and Japan.

Other stories on photographers, images and thoughts gathered along the way while researching the past 40 years have been uploaded to the page of my essays on our website, plus other stories to my blog: :


In September 2014 Gael Newton, Senior Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, retired after 29 years' service in various positions. Over her 40 year career Newton has curated many exhibitions - both historical and contemporary survey shows and monographs on Australian and international photographers.

Prior to joining the National Gallery, Newton was foundation Curator of Photography at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, where she worked from 1974-1985. From late 1985 to 1988 Gael was Visiting Curator, Bicentennial Photography Project, at the National Gallery of Australia commissioned to mount the exhibition Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1839-1988 and write and edit the accompanying reference work.

From 1989 Newton spent some years as a lecturer in the National Gallery's Public Programs Department and joined the curatorial program in 1992 as Curator of Australian and then Australian and International Photography.

Gael is a now freelance consultant and researcher.


more of Gael Newton's Essays and Articles


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