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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are warned that the following story includes the names and images of persons who are deceased. The State Library of NSW acknowledges that the following images and stories can be offensive and confronting in today’s context. They are published with respect to the descendants and communities of the individuals they depict.
In 2001 a small but interesting album of nineteenth-century photographs was presented to the Mitchell Library. Containing portraits of Fijian and Aboriginal people, it was compiled around 1870 by George Earngey, a surveyor and amateur anthropologist from northern New South Wales. Notable among the photographs are some arresting head-and-shoulder shots taken in JW Lindt’s Grafton studio. Lindt would later become famous for his photographs of ‘Aboriginals of New South Wales’, many of which are held at the Library.
The discovery of these previously unknown portraits in the Earngey album sheds new light on the development of Lindt’s portrayal of Aboriginal people and the ways in which he responded to, and shaped, perceptions of race in the nineteenth century.
Lindt and Earngey both arrived at the frontier town of Grafton in 1868; Earngey as a Harbours and Rivers clerk and Lindt as a photographer to join the business of fellow German, Conrad Wagner. Grafton, in the country of the Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung people, was one of the ‘rising towns’ of the north. Just 20 years before, the only white presence in this area had been the scattered bush camps of cedar-getters.
By the 1870s, the Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung people had witnessed the growth of a settlement that boasted a School of the Arts, a newspaper, a gaol and several photographic studios. Earngey, proud of the town he would make his home, purchased photographs of its main street and picturesque river and, perhaps at the same time, Lindt’s unsettling portraits of its original inhabitants.
The portraits are mugshots, posed according to the dictates of the emerging science of anthropology, which aimed to measure and compare people of different races to establish the differences between them. This visual reckoning of difference, enabled by photography, was fundamental to the highly problematic nineteenth-century mapping of ‘favoured’ and ‘unfavoured’ races, and created an international trade in photographs of Indigenous subjects.
Portraits like these were sent from all corners of the world to museums in Europe, where they could be slotted into the prejudiced racial hierarchies of eugenics and Social Darwinism, which asserted the superiority of whiteness.
Motivated by this demand for images, Lindt photographed some local Aboriginal men and women in the mugshot format but soon abandoned the project. Perhaps he found them, as we do today, too dehumanising in the way they reduce individuals to a ‘racial type’. Indeed, if Earngey had not collected these images they may well have been lost forever, for the style of photography to which Lindt turned — the theatrical and romantic staging of ‘tableau’ photography — was the antithesis of the brutal mugshot.
These images are artistic rather than scientific, and borrow their aesthetics from the German romanticism of Lindt’s training. Despite their beauty, they are difficult to contemplate: they force us to confront the realities of the history of race relations in New South Wales, and to see that history within the equally confronting international context of nineteenth century racial discourse.
The handsome people captured in these powerful images were ‘well-known Aboriginals of the Clarence’. They were photographed in front of painted backdrops of romanticised Australian landscapes, in poses that showed off their fine muscular physiques, or suggested the tenderness of family affection. Lindt carefully arranged papier-mâché rocks and transplanted foliage, and constructed rough-hewn humpies to signify their homes.
The photographs look staged and unreal to today’s audiences, but at the time they were praised for their truthfulness. The Clarence and Richmond Examiner reported on 8 December 1874 that Lindt’s photographs ‘represent very faithfully aboriginals, male and female of all ages, as the traveller finds them in the wild, and not as if just prepared for portraiture’.
The distinction between ‘in the wild’ and in the studio was an important one for Lindt’s audience, because these carefully constructed scenes were intended to show ‘native life’ as it existed prior to white settlement. The white audiences who consumed these images were predominantly interested in the idea of ‘pre-contact’ Indigenous culture, which they thought to be authentic — before its supposed corruption and demise through contact with white society. This fixation with pre-contact culture followed the blinkered nineteenth-century idea that Indigenous cultures were static, unable to modernise or adapt.
Curiously, Lindt has disrupted this European fantasy of pre-contact life by introducing elements of post-contact life into many of his images. Look closely, and you will see metal axes, tin mugs, troopers’ rifles, bowler hats, cotton petticoats, ruffled taffeta overdresses, moleskin trousers and striped stockmen’s shirts. The metal axes were among the first objects to be exchanged between Aboriginal men and the cedar-getters.
Mary Bundock, one of the early colonists in the area, whose papers are held in the Mitchell Library, recalled that ‘axe-snatching’ was a source of conflict and violence until ‘after a time the timber getters wisely gave their old axes or sold them in exchange for game or fish, and used the blacks’ skill in felling timbers for their own benefit, by getting them to assist in felling the great pine and cedar trees’.
These objects speak not only of post-contact life, but of the exchanges of tools, clothing and weapons between Indigenous people and settlers that were part of that life. It was the settlers who most benefited from these exchanges, often receiving cheap labour or goods in return. James Lionel Michael, another Grafton habitué whose letters are held in the Mitchell Library, writes of feasting on wild duck and game birds, of which ‘the blackfellows bring you plenty for a glass of rum, a fig of tobacco, or a sixpence, if you find them in powder or shot’. Mary Bundock, however, was thwarted in her attempt to procure a traditional bungalow palm water bucket, called a ‘pickiebau’:
I asked a youngish woman lately to make me some ‘pickies’. She said, ‘l’ll tell my mother’, and when I said ‘don’t be so lazy, make them yourself’, she laughed and answered ‘Never I been make them, always tin can.’
Lindt’s recognition of these changes in traditional Aboriginal life was at odds with the ideological demands of his time. These photographs were a huge departure from the dehumanising mugshots, allowing Lindt to show his subjects as people reacting to colonisation — not as ‘racial types’ who were the fit objects of scientific scrutiny.
The tableau photographs indicate that the Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung people known to Lindt were negotiating the impact of European life, and adapting to it in ways that countered the Eurocentric obsession with the ‘primitive past’ of Indigenous peoples and its self-serving assumption they had no future. The frilled dresses and bowler hats that spill from dilly bags and sit atop bark humpies, like the axes and tin cups, are small but significant details that speak of the present and future lives of the people in Lindt’s photographs — of the clothes they wore as they entered the photographic studio, and would don once again as they left to resume their lives on the streets, stations and camps of 1870s Grafton.
Dr Nicola Teffer is a Sydney-based curator and historian. She was the Library’s 2012 Nancy Keesing Fellow.
This article first appeared in SL magazine Autumn 2014.